Adventures in Chasing Old Documentaries

Documentary production in the United States often appears bicoastal. On the east coast, the documentary corridor seems to run from Boston to Washington, D.C. On the west coast, it seems to run from San Francisco to San Diego.

This loose classification has its problems, of course. Documentary powerhouse Kartemquin Films is firmly rooted in Chicago and its vibrant media scene. AppalShop in Kentucky gives voice to rural cultures and their challenges. Other documentary organizations and festivals accomplish similar purposes in other pockets of the country.

Documentary production more specifically and media production more generally have never been that geographically centralized. In the early years of film experimentation and pre-Hollywood, around 1895-1915, media production happened across the country. Unfortunately, these regional histories remain underexplored.

Which brought me to a question: What about North Dakota?

Several contemporary documentaries offer different pictures of the state. Welcome to Leith examines what happens when a hate group moves to town. The Overnighters is set against the backdrop of the shale oil boom and its affects on labor. Jesus Camp explores an evangelical youth Christian camp that used to be located in the state.

But I sought older titles, and an internet search uncovered the 1913 documentary With the Students of the North Dakota Agricultural College. The IMDb page included a trade publication’s description:

One of Selig’s informing educational pictures, showing a notable trip of the students of the North Dakota Agricultural College on a trip through the great Northwest. The students show their practicability in caring for every detail on this trip.

Selig refers to The Selig Polyscope Company, which began in Chicago before moving to Los Angeles, and at the time was one of the largest makers of films. The page also mentions the distibutor, the generically named General Film Company.

The time period offers some other hints about the film. It is certainly in black and white. It has a short run time, perhaps ten minutes or less. Most likely, it is a travel film or a scenic, with a series of scenes instead of a developed, character-driven narrative.

Sadly, the original film is probably gone. I did try the Internet Archive, Prelinger’s Archives, and The Library of Congress, but, so far, no luck.

And with that, the chase is on.

Five 1930s Documentaries to Check Out

The 1930s saw significant changes in documentary production practices and purposes. During this decade, the development of sound brought both voiceover narration and talking heads. John Grierson’s visions for documentary and their purposes flourished in the United Kingdom, while propaganda flourished in other parts of the world. And just as new conventions were being established, mockumentaries were already making fun of the emerging forms.

Here are five documentaries from the 1930s to check out.

Housing Problems

Directed by Edgar Anstey and Arthur Elton, Housing Problems examines the problems facing slum-dwellers in Stepney, London, England and proposes a solution. While a voiceover delivers the “official” perspective, this documentary short also provides interviews with the slum-dwellers themselves — an innovation at the time. Located in their homes, these residents talk about general disrepairs, vermin infestation, and even children’s deaths. New housing becomes the miracle solution that brings dignity as well as new appliances and natural gas, which is fitting considering the film’s sponsorship by the British Commercial Gas Association.

Night Mail

Harry Watt and Basil Wright’s Night Mail follows Royal Mail delivery on a train journey from London to Glasgow. It shows mail collection, deposit, and sorting on the trip. While simple in premise, Night Mail represents a more experimental form for documentaries at time. The narration, whose rhtythms align with the train’s at times, was written by poet W.H. Auden.

Triumph of the Will

Leni Riefenstahl‘s Triumph of the Will (Triumph Des Willens, German) shows both the height and the horror of Germany’s Nazi Party during the 1934 Nuremberg rallies. She captures the soundless fury of Hitler’s speeches and the collective’s responses. Elaborate staging, crane shots, and precise editing evoke both art in its form and fear in its application.

The River

Like Night Mail, Pare Lorentz’s The River traipses the line between art and propaganda. The river in question is the Mighty Mississippi and people’s attempts to contain it. Poetic narration and on-location visuals, including flooding damage, evoke the power and beauty of the river. A score by Virgil Thomson adds a sense of majesty to this film.

Land Without Bread

Luis Buñuel was ahead of his time with Land without Bread (Tierra Sin Pan). The film shows the extreme poverty of the Hurdes region in Spain, people who reportedly knew nothing about making bread. The film mocks the travelogues of the time, particularly through the voiceover narration and its staging of sequences, including a goat plummeting to its death and a donkey being stung to death.

Should another title be on this list? Leave your suggestions in the comments below.

Five Antarctica Documentaries to Check Out

Antarctica remains one of the few underexplored areas of our planet. Its startling beauty and mystery belie dangerous cold and other perils. Neither stops explorers from traveling there, nor do they stop documentary makers from going with them.

Check out these five documentaries about the southern-most continent.

Encounters at the End of the World

Directed and narrated by Werner Herzog, Encounters at the End of the World offers breath-taking scenery while exploring the wonders and dangers underlying it. Herzog interviews people working and living at McMurdo Station. As Herzog learns their stories and the natural wonders of the continent, he develops meditations on insane penguins and human extinction.

Antarctica: A Year on Ice

While Herzog is the ultimate outsider, Anthony Powell brings an insider’s access to his Antarctica: A Year on Ice. Ten years in the making, this visually stunning documentary shows what it’s like to live on the continent that sees 24-hour days in summer and 24-hour nights in winter. Instead of focusing on the scientists like other documentaries, Powell tells stories of the people who keep the stations running, from communications specialists to domestic help.

Antarctic Edge: 70 Degrees South

Scientists are the heroes in Dena Siedel’s Antarctic Edge: 70 Degrees South. A group of them take a month-long boat trip along the Antarctic coast, studying climate change and its effects on penguins, whales, krill, and ice. They conduct their studies using expensive and sophisticated equipment, and these experts then explain the studies and their relevance.

Shackleton’s Voyage of Endurance

Sir Ernest Shackleton planned a journey to traverse the southern continent — an 1,800-mile trek of mostly unexplored territory in the early 1900s. Shackleton’s Voyage of Endurance delves into the history of the expedition, focusing particularly on the final leg to and across the South Georgia Island. This documentary uses interviews with experts and descendents, archival footage of still and moving images, and oral dramatizations from the explorers to bring the story to life.

Terra Antarctica: Re-Discovering the Seventh Continent

Jon Bowermaster’s Terra Antarctica: Re-Discovering the Seventh Continent follows a more modern journey on the seas near the continent. Traveling by sailboat, kayak, and small plane, the documentary features the expected stunning icy visuals alongside more quirky human experiences, such as preparing meals on a rocking boat and exploring a Russian Orthodox church. First-person voiceover offers insights into the expedition, climate change, and human impacts.

Should another title be on this list? Leave your suggestions in the comments below.

‘Hard Earned’ Shows the Challenges of Making a Living and a Life

Economic stories that focus on numbers — employment rates, job creation rates, wages, and inflation — fail to show the real price, the human costs, of financial realities. Hard Earned, an upcoming documentary series from Kartemquin Films, tells stories about people working to make a living and working to make a life following the economic recession.

Hard Earned is a six-part series that aired on Al Jazeera America. The series paints intimate portraits of people from across the country:

  • Emilia Stancati, 50, a tell-it-like-it-is waitress in Chicago and its suburbs who seeks higher wages, weekends off, and Harley riding time
  • Takita Akins, 24, and De’Jaun “DJ” Jackson, 23, who work at Walgreen’s in Chicago and juggle health, kids, and long commutes on public transportation
  • Jose Merino, 32, and Elizabeth Bonta, 27, who live with family members while they save for their own home in Montgomery County, Maryland
  • Hilton Kennedy III, 20, and his girlfriend, Diana Gonzalez, 18, who live in a garage in the Silicon Valley while preparing for their twins’ arrival
  • Percy, 66, and Beverly, 65, Evans who face working through their retirement years in order to keep their Milwaukee home

They want not extravagant but basic things that bring quality to life — to feel like they are contributing to their jobs, to have opportunities to move up, to get an education, to have their own safe home, to pursue their own passions, not to choose between health and work, and not to worry about money. They work hard to keep up, even try to get ahead, but it seems like something always gets in the way.

Their stories blow away any illusions about the challenges of trying to make a living in this country. The episodes show them balancing everyday decisions about home, health, work, transportation, and paychecks with decisions about finding stability and growing in professions, faith, and hobbies. These decisions and their outcomes give this series its depth and its strength.

DJ, for example, works as a wine and spirits specialist at a Chicago Walgreen’s for $10.50 an hour. That $10.50 an hour comes to $21,000 per year.

But like most everyone, DJ seeks more from work than just a wage — he seeks meaning and wants to make a difference. Beyond that, he wants to be a good role model for his family. He later lands an opportunity to work as a union organizer with a decent salary, but the opportunity comes with a heavier workload and the obligation to buy a car.

Like life, though, every story has uncertainties, upswings, and downswings, such as a car failing to start, a mortgage opportunity falling through, an unexpected expense throwing off the budget. One bit of news proves almost devastating for Hilton and Diana. But there are high points as well, with weddings, new homes, and unexpected opportunities.

Multiple other themes weave throughout the series, such as immigration, generational differences, and cultural expectations. Emilia struggled with arriving in the United States as a child who spoke no English and still struggles with getting along with her father and building a relationship with her daughter and grandson. Hilton, an American citizen by birth who grew up in Mexico, struggles with finding work and learning English. Elizabeth Bonta works hard to support and care for her ailing parents.

The series structure allows everything to unfold organically. Instead of one episode focusing on people in one location, each one weaves sequences from the different narratives throughout. The pacing allows time to get to know them and their circumstances, their hardships and their joys.

The stories drive the series, but relevant stats supplements them. Simple graphics show the difference gaining or losing a couple dollars per hour makes, or what taking on a second job means in terms of money and time. For example, one stat mentions how the number of midwage jobs before the recession was 3.8 million, but the number of midwage jobs after recession was 700,000. The graphics show the obstacles to getting ahead, with salaries dropping and costs rising. Getting ahead is expensive, but so is just getting by.

Different directors filmed the stories for this series. Ruth Leitman captured Emilia’s story, while Brad Lichtenstein captured Percy and Beverly’s story. Joanna Rudnick filmed Hilton and Diana, while Maria Finitzo filmed DJ and Takita’s story. Katy Chevigny captured Jose and Elizabeth’s segments. Even with this multi-director approach, they unite seamlessly.

For the most part, the directors remain in the background, letting their participants take center stage. Occasionally, their presence becomes known but not obtrusively. Off camera, someone asks the Percys, “How much do you still owe?” in reference to their mortgage. They reveal that after 13 years, they still owe the same amount they purchased the house for. At another point Emilia mentions her warnings to the filmmakers about her smoking, motorcycle riding, and truck driver language.

Elizabeth Laidlaw’s light narration provides facts, updates, and insights into their situations without offering judgment or evaluation. Her narration stitches these segments together across the episodes, providing cohesion.

The one word that kept coming back to me throughout this series — and throughout all the Kartemquin films I have seen so far — is dignity. An unfortunate shame can accompany talking about difficult economic situations, leaving people feeling vulnerable about circumstances that often lie beyond their control. The people in this series make themselves vulnerable in talking openly and honestly about their situations, and the series deeply respects that trust and their dignity throughout in letting them tell their own stories in their own ways.

Five Comedy Documentaries to Check Out

Comedy is an important part of culture. Humor allows expression of controversial and taboo ideas in ways that some audiences can accept. Jokes bring hidden issues to public attention in ways other genres just can’t.

Documentaries take comedy seriously. Well, documentaries take most everything seriously, but that doesn’t mean the form never shows its sense of humor.

Check out these five documentaries about comedy.


Comedian goes backstage to explore the nerve-wracking world of stand-up comedy. Christian Charles’s film follows twin narrative arcs of the novice comedian and the established comedian. The novice comedian, Orny Adams, struggles with landing gigs and telling a rewritten joke on a late-night talk show. The established comedian, none other than Jerry Seinfeld, places himself back on the club circuit to develop his new material. While the two comedians offer career contrasts, they both face similar struggles.

The Aristocrats

With the aristocrats joke, the humor is not in the punchline but in the telling. And the more offensive the telling of the joke, the better. Directed by Paul Provenza, The Aristocrats features 100 comedians from Billy Connolly to Whoopi Goldberg telling their version of this classic vaudeville joke. Check out Full House star Bob Saget’s rendition for a particularly vulgar take. This film is not for the thin-skinned.

Old Jews Telling Jokes

The title captures the topic, simplicity, and delight of this web series directed by Sam Hoffman. A senior Jewish person is idenitified by name, sometimes occupation, sometimes location, and birth year as they tell their joke. Some jokes are short and sweet, such as this one about the urologist, while others require a longer telling, such as this one about the Lone Ranger’s fate. They also cover food, religion, Jewish mothers,
and the more risqué.

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

Joan Rivers (1933-2014) was a giant in female stand-up comedy, a pioneer who inspired generations of female comics. In 2017, she landed at number six on Rolling Stone’s best stand-up comics list. Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg’s Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work follows the workaholic comedian for a year, during which she packs her calendar with gigs from acting in a play to appearing on a reality show, not to mention the occasional stand-up appearance.

The Muslims are Coming!

The Muslims are Coming! is a concert documentary and road trip that features several Muslim comedians traveling around the United States to generate conversation about Muslims, to challenge Muslim stereotypes, and to entertain audiences. Directed by and starring Negin Farsad and Dean Obeidallah, the film follows these comedians as they offer free shows in places such as Birmingham, Tupelo, and Murfreesboro. Commentary from established comedians, imams, and other experts rounds out this film.

Should another title be on this list? Leave your suggestions in the comments below.

Five Sport Documentaries to Check Out

Sport has been a subject of documentary since Edison’s and the Lumieres’ 1890s experiments. One of Edison’s first pieces is a boxing match between Mike Leonard and Jack Cushing. In the 1930s Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia showcased atheticism in the guise of propaganda. Today, ESPN’s 30 for 30 series has propelled sport documenatary to new popularity.

In no particular order below are five sport documentaries to check out.

When We Were Kings

When We Were Kings, directed by Leon Gast, chronicles the Rumble in the Jungle between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in 1974. The film captures Ali at his heights of skill and charm, and it captures the fans’ fervor of the event. Though financial issues kept the film in production for more than 20 years, that delay didn’t inhibit any of the film’s power when it was finally released in 1996.

The Endless Summer

Bruce Brown‘s The Endless Summer follows two 1960s surfers as they attempt to catch waves on coasts around the world: New Zealand, Tahiti, and South Africa, to name a few. The surf rock soundtrack offers an easy-going feel, and the voiceover narration provides light-hearted humor and fun in its wry observations on the surf, surfers, and local cultures.

Tokyo Olympiad

Kon Ichikawa’s Tokyo Olympaid is an Olympic achievement unto itself with its scale and length. Filmed during the 1964 Olympics, Ichikawa’s catalogue captures details grand and small, from entire races to anguished faces. The careful editing results in a musical composition that glides through the Olympic experience.


Murderball offers an edge-of-your-seat look at wheelchair rugby and the competition between the U.S. and Canadian teams in the 2004 Paralympic Games. Players such as Mark Zupan and Scott Hogsett break down the stereotypes of sport, masculinity, and ability with brutal honesty and biting humor. The result is entertaining and uplifting.

Hoop Dreams

If you watch only one sport documentary, make it Steve James’s Hoop Dreams. The almost-three hour film follows two Chicago teens recruited to play ball in suburban high schools as they pursue their dreams to play pro ball. They face multiple obstacles along the way — financial and familial, physical and psychological — as they aim for spots on college and, later, NBA teams. The thrilling gameplay at the Illinois state championships is among some of the best shot and edited game footage in any sport documentary.

Should another title be on this list? Leave your suggestions in the comments below.

Engaging the Battle for ‘Hearts and Minds’

For the years during the war and for almost a decade after, Vietnam remained an almost untouched subject in the American popular media. Extensive television coverage of men fighting in the bush provided a collective experience accompanied by newscasters’ observations, but not until the late in the 1970s did memoirs, novels, and films begin to delve deeper into the soldiers’, and the nation’s, experiences. Then came print releases of Michael Herr’s Dispatches and Ron Kovic’s Born on the Fourth of July. East-setting sun of John Wayne’s The Green Berets and the satire of Robert Altman’s MASH aside, Hollywood slowly but surely began to address the war with such films as Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Michael Cimino’s Deer Hunter, and Hal Ashby’s Coming Home.

A theme running through many of these works is the credible voice of the soldier’s experience. By having been there, the soldier gains an authority not accessible to those who stayed in “the world,” to those who fought against American forces, or to those victimized by those forces. But this plethora of voices provides but one perspective on the horrors that occurred, and while these voices work toward one understanding, there are still many other uncertainties to contend with.

Peter Davis’s documentary Hearts and Minds was released in 1975 to much controversy after threats of lawsuits and changes in distributors. With the film, Davis, who formerly worked at CBS on the The Selling of the Pentagon, addresses three questions: “Why did we go to Vietnam?”, “What did we do there?”, and “What did the doing do to us?” Davis interviews American political leaders, American military members, Vietnamese leaders, and Vietnamese civilians to demonstrate the ideologies at work during the war, their application, and their effects on the tiny country and its venerable people. The film offers no definite answers, but it raised issues at a time when the American public was not quite ready to deal with them.

The title comes from a statement made by Lyndon B. Johnson: “[T]he ultimate victory will depend upon the hearts and minds of the people who actually live out there.” This statement establishes the war’s two fronts. One front is the actual combat between military forces in the name of suppressing or advancing a Communist regime. The other front is more local, more personal – it centers on the attempts to win Vietnamese citizens’ support to rally against the Vietcong. But this simple dichotomy only hints at the underlying complexities, and here is where Davis’s film begins its work.

Hearts and Minds opens with an idyllic scene of the Hung Dinh village, located northwest of Saigon. No voiceover explains the image; only a small title notes the location. Villagers work in the lush, green fields and walk among the small homes. Traditional Vietnamese music on the soundtrack adds to the calm. The shots and music create the illusion of peace – that is, until an armed American solider walks by.

Interviews, news and newsreel footage, and film clips introduce the Cold War mentality underlying U.S. politicians’ motivations for fighting in Vietnam. Much of this thinking relates to America’s growth as an international force after World War II, its vision of freedom for all, and its fear of Communist governments and their growing power. America’s involvement in Vietnam began in the 1950s when the United States financed 78 percent of the French war. French leader Georges Bidault reveals that the United States offered him two atomic bombs to help end the war, a fact never revealed in the popular press. Clark Clifford, aide to the president 1948-1950, explains the involvement as a sense of power and a vision of progress, one that ostensibly extends to all nations. Daniel Ellsberg, a former aide to the Defense Department, notes how the “covert aggression view” helped put the Vietnam War in context of World War II thinking, thus making it more justifiable to the military and to the public. In an interview with famed economist Walt Rostow, Davis, off-camera, asks, “Why do they need us?” Stuttering in surprise, Rostow first replies, “Because they were subject to, uh, military attack from the outside,” and after more stuttering, he asks, “Are you really asking me this goddamn silly question?” With these early interviews, Davis questions the certainty of purpose and intentions in the conflict.

Interviews with former military personnel provide another perspective on the war. While politicians and policymakers remained in “the world,” the military served “in country,” to use period jargon. Some enjoyed the thrill of combat, some saw duty as a job, and others fled to Canada to avoid the draft. Captain Randy Floyd of Oklahoma talks about flying planes for 98 bombing missions; shots of bombs being loaded and falling, and planes taking off and landing, illustrate his comments. “It was very clean,” he says. Stan Holder, a Native American from Arizona, talks about learning the traditions of warriors in his heritage and how he saw the Marines as a way of becoming a warrior. Robert Muller shares his thrill of shooting the enemy. Former Sergeant William Marshall of Detroit talks about the napalm drops and how he used a dead body to shield himself from the poison; of 35 men, he is the only one to have survived. Edward Sowders requests amnesty during Congressional hearings about dealing with those who fled the draft.

A brief sequence reveals the soldiers’ lives both off and on the field. Soldiers wander the Saigon streets, bartering for pictures and prostitutes. Children follow them around begging for money. Two men engage with prostitutes and discuss their women throughout. On the field solders use lighters to torch a straw roof while jets fly overhead and villagers huddle together in fear. When on the front line and asked his opinion, one anonymous soldier replies, “This whole thing stinks.”

Lt. George Coker, a prisoner of war from 1966-1973, displays an unshakable patriotism as he delivers several speeches throughout the film. The first speech is in honor of his homecoming to Linden, New Jersey; the town welcomes him with a parade, a band, and a red carpet. He talks to a women’s group about how the training for war begins at home; shot of a football game and its pregame pep talk help reinforce how the soldier thinking begins early. He also talks to a group of young Catholic school students. One student asks him, “What did Vietnam look like?” Coker replies, “Well, if it wasn’t for the people, it was very pretty. The people over there are very backward and very primitive, and they just make a mess out of everything.”

Davis also includes the Vietnamese perspective on the war and its effects. Two older Vietnamese sisters, Vo Thi Hue and Vo Thi Tu, lost their other sister during a bombing raid, and Vo Thi Tu also lost her home. As Vo Thi Tu points to her ruined house, she metaphorically says, “It’s like a bird and its nest. The way things are with the house in the rubble, the bird comes home and finds no nest.” Vu Duc Vinh, an anguished father, lost both his son and his daughter in a bombing mission. He demands to know, “What have I done to Nixon so that he comes here to bomb my country?”

Napalm did almost as much damage as the bombing, and children suffered and died from its application. “The girl in the picture,” 9-year-old Kim Phuc, was severely burned it, and a photographer captured her running and screaming with other frightened members of her village. Instead of being frozen in time, Davis’s moving image fully reveals the terror on her face. Another woman carries a young boy, who has patches of charred flesh hanging off his heels. Mui Duc Giang builds coffins for the children dying from napalm and from bombs; he had lost seven children of his own.

The Vietnamese people also endured gunshots and torture. In one particularly disturbing scene a suspected Vietcong stands with his hands bound; as another man walks by, he shoots the prisoner in the head. The body falls over and blood spurts from the fatal wound. Army Intelligence Officer Barton Osborn relates an anecdote about two Vietnamese men being tortured for information and one of them being thrown out of a helicopter (Sergeant George Trendell denies the veracity of the story).

Vietnamese officials and religious figures explain their people’s perspectives on the war and the Americans. Father Chan Tin explains, “The people of North Vietnam and South Vietnam fight only for freedom, independence, and national unity.” Thich Lieu Minh, a Buddhist monk, denies that his people are the savages outsiders perceive them to be. He, too, supports the pride in his nation: “Let me respectfully tell the American people that this is their dirtiest and longest war. The Vietnamese fight only in self-defense.” It is interesting to see the representation of the two religions – the Catholicism brought with the colonizers, the French, and the traditional Buddhism – both agreeing with what their country wants.

Americans also meddled in Vietnamese politics. Ho Chi Minh wrote seven letters to the United States government seeking its help, and he visited America in 1957, only to be dead in 1962. General Nguyen Khanh, president of South Vietnam in 1964-65, plays a tape of General Maxwell Taylor, U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam in 1964-65, asking him to resign. Nguyen did and lived in exile in France.

For the most part Davis’s style remains unobtrusive, but occasionally the camera and editing surprise us. Throughout the interviews with the veterans, Davis uses close-ups to focus on their faces. While Robert Muller talks about a battle, the camera cuts from a close-up to a three-quarter shot, which reveals for the first time that Muller sits in a wheelchair. A slow pan from his feet up shows his immobile legs, forcing us to contemplate his loss. The camera pulls back to reveal that the animated William Marshall also lost his arm.

Lingering close-ups prove just as revealing. As Randy Floyd comments that Americans never have seen such atrocities, he pauses, sighing and wiping his eyes; the camera keeps him in a tight frame. Davis, again off-camera, allows him a moment or two of silence before asking, “Do you think we’ve learned anything from all this?” Floyd replies, “I think we’re trying not to.” Another longer shot of Vo Thi Hue and Vo Thi Tu forces us to watch them cry while trying to cope with their grief.

Davis’s style and politics manifest themselves particularly well in a sequence near the film’s end. At the numerous graves at the Nation Cemetery in South Vietnam, a child cries pitifully while a woman tries to crawl into a grave. General William Westmoreland comments, “Well, the Orient doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful, life is cheap in the Orient.” A wailing child and the general’s words echo hauntingly.

Hearts and Minds shows how the United States failed to win over the hearts and minds of not only the Vietnamese people, but also numerous Americans, including former soldiers and politicians. The film shows the “enemy” as human, as people, not faceless strangers. It movingly shows how war destroys lives and hopes, on both sides, and at what price? Feelings about the Vietnam War today are mixed and strong, and, looking back today, still unresolved.

‘Grizzly Man’ and the Filmmaker-Subject Relationship

Grizzly Man (2005) is as much about the filmmaker-subject relationship as it is about the subject himself.

The subject is Timothy Treadwell, a bear enthusiast who spent 13 summers living among them and recording more than 100 hours of video with them and himself. Treadwell and his then-girlfriend Amie Huguenard met their untimely deaths when they were attacked by a bear in Alaska.

The footage Treadwell left behind becomes part of the foundation for telling his story in this documentary. It shows him as enthusiastic about the bears and about interacting with them. Treadwell brings a boundless energy to his excited commentary about the bears, their relationships, and the other wildlife.

Werner Herzog develops his own relationship with Treadwell during the documentary. On the one hand, he expresses a great admiration for Treadwell’s footage and the depths of humanity that the footage offers. In the voiceover he claims he found “a story of astonishing beauty and depth. I discovered a film of human ecstasies and darkest inner turmoil.” He admires Treadwell’s tenacity and taking shots, in one case repeating a take 50 times. He also admires the way in which some of the shots take on their own life.

Herzog builds Treadwell’s story through interviews with friends, former girlfriends, his parents, and experts. They all note his exuberance, but some of them point out darker sides of his personality as well. Not everyone thinks highly of Treadwell. One of the first interviews with Sam Egli shows him stating, “He got what he was asking for,” for Egli thought the greater tragedy rested with Amie’s death.

But the larger meditation in this piece centers on Treadwell’s ideas about bears and rejection of humanity and on Herzog’s relationship with the subject of man and nature. One juxtaposition is particularly telling here. We see Treadwell over the moon about a pile of freshly dropped bear dung. “It was inside of her,” he exclaims as he touches it. This moment segues into looking at how Treadwell almost ignores the idea of death and its function within nature. Here, Herzog asserts his own view, stating, “He seemed to ignore the fact that in nature there are predators. I believe the common denominator of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility, and murder.” To punctuate his point, the camera shows a close-up of the dead baby fox’s head.

“He seemed to ignore the fact that in nature there are predators. I believe the common denominator of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility, and murder.” — Werner Herzog

In the end of the film, Herzog reveals that he has access to Treadwell’s final tape. Earlier in the film, he listens to the tape with Treadwell’s ex-girlfriend, and he tells her not to listen to it, not to watch it, but instead to destroy it. She agrees with him. In these final sequences, we see Treadwell talking before the camera, filming an extended sequence of a bear, and revealing a third shot of Amie. We see or hear nothing of his final moments, but instead we hear the coroner recounting what he heard and how he interpreted it. Any closer would have been too much.

While Treadwell’s love of bears continues up until the moments of his death, Herzog remains unconvinced of Treadwell’s deeply forged connections with them. Instead, he observes over a shot of a bear’s face, “I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature. To me, there is no such thing as a secret world of the bears. And this blank stare speaks only of the half-bored interest in food.”

“I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature. To me, there is no such thing as a secret world of the bears. And this blank stare speaks only of the half-bored interest in food.” — Werner Herzog

I’ve always maintained that any documentary about nature is as much about humanity as it is about plants, animals, and the “world outside.” Each nature film tells us something about nature just as it does about the humans making the documentary about it. Grizzly Man drives this point home not only through telling Treadwell’s story, but also through Herzog’s complex relationship with his subject.

Getting Down in the Trenches in ‘The War Room’

In 1960 presidential candidates John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon met on national television for the first in a series of debates. This meeting proved the latter’s downfall for while Kennedy, tanned and relaxed, impressed audiences with his confidence and poise, Nixon, pale and haggard, lost credibility because of his tired appearance. Unique at the time, this coverage only just hinted at the advertising machines political campaigns would become 40 years later.

That the media manufacture presidential candidates is no secret today. The evidence is everywhere, from reports on the exorbitant costs to scandalous exposés of politicians’ private lives. Almost all of it is met with a flash of public indignation and then forgotten until the next crisis comes along. What began as a novelty has become a standard cog in the media machine.

The War Room offers an inside look at presidential image production. In the cinema verite spirit pioneered in Primary, Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker follow Clinton’s campaign staff and its tireless efforts to polish the image of a less-than-squeaky-clean kid from Hope, Arkansas, into a shine worthy of public vote into the Oval Office. The film chronicles the monkey wrenches thrown into the works, including Gennifer Flowers’s allegations, draft-dodging accusations, and other mud-slinging on platform issues. It also chronicles events from the New Hampshire primary, the Democratic party nomination and the bus tour, the debates, and the victory on election night in November.

The cinema verite style allows the gradual discovery of just how much chaos rules in the “war room,” a staff name for the Little Rock, Arkansas, campaign headquarters. The Gazette building, a sedate concrete edifice with the name and year 1908 etched over the entrance, belies the flurry of activity inside. Instead of the slick, well-oiled, assembly-line production, we find typical office trappings but unusual office-type behavior. Desks, chairs, phones, paper piles, and houseplants fill the room, but so do cans and cases of Budweiser beer. Staff members eat popcorn out of unused coffee filters. Shelves holding several televisions help staff monitor the media’s coverage. Signs with witty and sarcastic phrases adorn the walls, including a Clinton baseball pennant and the phrase, “The economy, stupid.”

Taking credit for this rather blunt saying is James Carville, also know as the Ragin’ Cajun and manager of the Clinton production team. With his Southern affectations, quick mind, and dazzling one-liners, Carville is fun to watch. His speeches are punctuated with “y’alls” and exaggerated vowels, and even when he watches television, his animated face hides nothing of the venom, joy, dismay, or elation he feels. He shuns the jacket-and-tie uniform in favor of jeans and T-shirts with logos for LSU and sayings such as “Carville Speed Killed … Bush.”

Carville demonstrates his commitment to Clinton through the enthusiasm he brings to every meeting involving campaign decisions. While developing a quick television spot with a committee, he insists on including George Bush’s infamous sound-bite, “read my lips,” at least three times in the voiceover. The media representative on the phone protests about the length, but eventually revisions are made and the call ended. Carville launches into a brief diatribe about uncooperative media people but returns to his sound-bite hang-up, calling the phrase “the most famous broken promise in the history of American politics.”

His zippy one-liners are not limited to the war room. On a call with a KDKA talk show he responds to a question about Mary Matalin, his girlfriend (now wife) and deputy manager of the Bush campaign, and their differences of opinion on who is the better candidate. His lengthy response sends staff members working around him into fits of quiet, barely contained, laughter. The sequence ends with another brilliant bit of wit and wisdom: “Everybody’s got an opinion. This is the most American thing you can do.”

George Stephanopoulos plays the straight man to Carville’s one-man act. The conservative media manager, Stephanopoulos almost always wears button-down shirts and slacks or ties and sport coats. He is serious and formal but no less committed to Clinton’s success than Carville. In a television segment with Sam Donaldson he defends the accusation of Clinton having a character problem, referring specifically to his draft-dodging and martial infidelities. Without raising his voice or batting an eye, Stephanopoulos redirects the focus back to education and jobs. Even on election night, with the landslide victory imminent, Stephanopoulos calmly tells the future president the hopeful results over the phone. When he hangs up, a staff member mirrors many of our thoughts when she asks, “How do you feel? Are you happy, are you scared, or are you nothing or do you want to just like cry or what?” He smiles in response: “It’s just like floating.”

While most of the footage featuring Carville and Stephanopoulos is filmed in cinema verite style, the filmmakers also step outside their observational roles. They supplement this footage with television clips and shots of newspaper headlines in order to fill in some gaps in their timeline, and in doing so, also provide an additional perspective on events: the media’s. Television shots reveal much of the dings in the candidate’s reputation. One early segment juxtaposes Gennifer Flowers’s press conference (“Did Governor Clinton use a condom?” asks one reporter) and her revelation of their affair with shots of reporters asking Clinton for comments on the accusations. Nondiegetic music, including a pop song by Deee-Lite titled “Vote, Baby, Vote,” smoothes the continuity of looking at various newspaper headlines that chart Clinton’s rise and fall at both the primary polls and the public opinion polls.

One of the few shots of Clinton reveals him without the spin doctors in a tizzy trying to prepare his image for the camera. This close-up shows the humanness of the future president in that he wears a ball cap, an Arkansas Razorbacks T-shirt, a geeky digital watch, and running shoes. He holds a telephone receiver in his hand and drinks coffee while discussing his high school times with a reporter. As he hangs up the phone, he remarks to his campaign staff, “I bet I said something you could take out of context.”

Highlighting these imperfections in Clinton’s image is not meant as ridicule. Instead, the film tries to show Clinton as a person without focusing too much on the man himself – it leaves the image improvement job to the war room staff. Carville handles this job with Southern grace and charm and, for good measure, a rather amusing line. In response to the draft-dodging brouhaha, he reaches for the Tums and says, “What’s the matter today? Every time somebody farts the word ‘draft,’ it’s on the front page of the paper.” When Bush cancels a debate, he quips, “We ought to be on this thing like a stink on shit.”

Richard Leacock and Robert Drew started a tradition more than 40 years ago with their film Primary. With unprecedented access to the inner campaign workings, these two filmmakers followed Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey as they vied for the Democratic party nomination in Wisconsin. Instead of adding voiceover, they used the cinema verite style to provide an eye-opening experience.

Like Leacock and Drew, Hegedus and Pennebaker ran a risk in using this style for their documentary – the waiting game for something to happen. In The War Room Carville delivers. During one of the final meetings of the staff, Stephanopoulos calmly introduces Carville with a thank you. Carville gets up to give one final rally cry for the troops, but a close-up reveals his chin quivering as he speaks. A tear emerges and he wipes it away, still fighting the wash of tears coming on. He finishes his speech to applause, cheers, and chants of “one more day.” His overwhelmed reaction becomes the emotional climax for the film.

The filmmakers ran a second risk in making this film: Clinton losing the election. If he had lost, according to Hegedus, “the value of a film about a losing campaign staff wasn’t going to be too salable for us. There is a risk in any story where you’re following real life and you don’t know what’s going to happen.”

But the voters responded and elected Clinton by a “landslide,” in Stephanopoulos’s word. The film shows how an unconventional candidate needs an unconventional team, not the mechanical efficiency seen in the slick productions made today. And by mixing the cinema verite footage with television clips, newspaper headlines, and music, Hegedus and Pennebaker create a proper form in which to showcase Carville, Stephanopoulos, and the rest of Clinton’s staff.

An Invitation to Witness in ‘Cameraperson’

Cameraperson is an audiovisual memoir of documentary camera operator Kirsten Johnson’s 25-year career. It features a pastiche of images and occasional titles, but no voiceover or staged interviews. The film results in a deep meditation on creating documentary images and sound and their ethical implications.

Cameraperson opens with a title that reads

“For the past 25 years I’ve worked as a documentary cinematographer. I originally shot the following footage for other films, but here I ask you to see it as my memoir. These are the images that have marked me and leave me wondering still.”

The footage comes from multiple documentaries that sharp viewers may recognize, including Citizenfour (Laura Poitras, 2014), Trapped (Dawn Porter, 2016), and Fahrenheit 9/11 (Michael Moore, 2004), among many others. Johnson also weaves in footage from her own life, particularly with her young twins and with her mother, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease.

The images range from the mundane to the near suspenseful. In Missouri, Johnson sits alongside a rural road while cars swoosh by and clouds build in the sky. Multi-pronged lightning strikes and Johnson gasps, though after the thunder rumbles through, Johnson sneezes twice.

A more suspenseful moment occurs in Yemen. She and the director ride in a car with a driver while trying to get footage of the Sana’a Central Prison without getting caught by authorities. She manages a couple angled views before soldiers stop them and demand they get out of the car. Then the sequence cuts to black, leaving the outcome of that situation a mystery.

Other scenes raise questions of what not to show. In an interview with a mass rape survivior, Johnson frames the woman’s hands, using an extreme close-up on her gestures and smoking. In another interview with a young woman seeking an abortion, Johnson again frames the woman’s hands, showing her fidgeting, crossing her arms, and plucking at the holes in her jeans. These setups capture these women’s experiences while retaining their dignity and anonymity.

Another kind of vulnerability emerges in an autobiographical documentary about mental illness and suicide and the living people it affects. As the participant talks about the effects left behind, she gets frustrated and angry, throwing items and papers across the room. She begins to cry, and slides off the bed to the floor, facing away from the camera. Johnson comes around the bed with her camera in hand, still rolling, but remains at a distance, not zooming in on the woman’s face.

The images also offer a sense of surprise and discovery, sometimes in powerful ways. In reviewing the evidence in the case of James Byrd Jr.’s dragging death, people begin to pull the chain that dragged him out of a bin. Instead of waiting for the chain to be unfurled, Johnson peers into the box, showing the chain’s weight and the death that it brought.

Johnson includes images of her family, such as her twin children and their grandfather as well as footage of her now-deceased mother. In various podcast interviews Johnson talks about how her mother always took her own pictures but she rarely appeared in anyone else’s pictures. She describes how her mother would have disliked appearing in these images, but these images show the challenges of Alzheimer’s disease and its effects in those suffering from it.

While the images chosen for this pastiche are compelling, the role of sound struck me even more. Documentaries frequently are quite noisy with all the voices in the talking heads and voiceover narration, not to mention added music and location sound. Cameraperson eschews talking heads, voiceover, and music, relying instead on location sound.

The result is often quiet. In some scenes, insects and birds dominate the soundtrack. A sharp wind whistles through, throwing Johnson’s mother off balance for a moment. Snow rumbles off the roof in an almost “natural” punctuation to an intense moment in the autobiograhical documentary.

In other scenes we hear Johnson’s comments and her reactions to what happens before her camera. In one scene a toddler plays with an ax, and Johnson worries whether to intervene.

A series of images shows sites of mass rapes and deaths from around the world, including Rwanda and Bosnia. As the series plays, a thudding occurs on the soundtrack. The thudding continues, creating a heavy rhythm that punctuates the weight of the images and their meanings, despite their current mundane appearance. The thudding turns out to be athletes diving onto a thick gym mat.

Sometimes you desperately want to hear the right sound. One particularly difficult set of scenes comes from a Nigerian maternity ward. According to the midwife, a mother arrived carrying twins. One twin was born without incident, but the other twin remained, requiring drugs to induce further labor. The baby finally arrives, but he struggles. As the midwife tries to help him, the infant is quiet — too quiet. The midwife sucks fluid out of the baby’s lungs, uses a device to get air into his lungs, and slaps him on the backside to help him further. These sounds are sharp and clear on the soundtrack, but their relative quiet is unnerving until the baby’s cry pierces the silence. After the midwife swaddles the infant, the quiet returns, this time with low car horns beeping outside. He is too quiet for someone just arriving in this world.

For those seeking a coherent message and smooth flow among the images, Cameraperson will frustrate. But neither of those are the point. Cameraperson invites us into Johnson’s world behind the camera. That invitation brings us into the ongoing relationship among technology, operators, and participants. It is an invitation to witness, and a privileged one at that.