Documentary and Advocacy Connections in ‘We Rise’

Documentaries can play various roles in advocacy work. In the book We Rise: The Earth Guardians Guide to Building a Movement that Restores the Planet, Xiuhtezcatl Martinez cites several examples useful for illustrating the diversity of these roles.

A documentary can evoke a wide range of emotions. Leonardo DiCaprio’s The Eleventh Hour chronicles the global destruction caused by human activity. Thought upset at seeing the film, Martinez became motivated to do something. He writes, “It felt like a huge turning point for me.”

A documentary can introduce you to new parts of the world and to the issues affecting them. For Martinez, the epic Planet Earth showed him the wonders of the Great Barrier Reef, while Chasing Coral showed its devastating destruction. Martinez interviews documentary director Jeff Orlowski, who created both Chasing Coral and Chasing Ice. Chasing Ice shows the impacts of environmental changes on the melting Arctic ice cap, while Chasing Coral tries to uncover the causes for the reefs dying so quickly.

A documentary can educate about key issues and inspire further research. Martinez cites his friend’s viewing of Joe Berlinger’s Crude, which tells the story of Chevron’s refusal to clean up the oil waste and its impacts on the Amazon communities. His friend did more research into the issues, found organizations helping out, and volunteered for them.

A documentary can open mainstream media doors for other media about similar issues. Martinez interviews Adrian Grenier, who played Vincent Chase on Entourage. Grenier cites An Inconvenient Truth as helping get people to pay attention to his eco-conscious reality show Alter Eco.

A documentary also can inspire other media makers to create their own works. Grenier counts Encounters from the End of the World, by Werner Herzog, as one of his inspirations.

A documentary can tell the stories of other activists and their work. Sandra Steingraber is an environmental activist whose work and life is featured in the book and documetary Living Downstream. Martinez even appears in the short documentary Kid Warrior, which chronicles his life so far and his work as Earth Guardian Youth Director.

Documentary makers themselves can become involved in direct and indirect actions toward raising awareness about climate change. Martinez recalls Josh Fox, director of How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change and Gasland, participated in an action to prevent a coal ship from leaving port.

And finally, a documentary screening can bring people together in communities to talk about issues and what they can do about them. Martinez mentions this option a couple times as part of his suggestions for what people can do to start advocating for the planet. Many documentaries do offer special rates for just those kinds of screenings.

10 Other Documentaries about the Vietnam War to Check Out

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War begins this week, though the 18-hour series is far from the first about the subject. Unlike Hollywood’s almost 15-year delay, documentary makers started trying to make sense of the war early on.

The Vietnam War has been a cultural touchstone for generations, though it resonates most with the baby boomers who served and protested and with generation X who lost family members and friends or grew up with survivors who struggled afterward.

The war long has been held up as a marker of American failure. George Bush declared in a speech before actions in Iraq and Kuwait, “I’ve told the American people before that this will not be another Vietnam, and I repeat this here tonight.” Similar refrains occurred at the start of military actions following 9/11, as each war invited armchair comparisons. Check out Robert Brigham’s book Is Iraq Another Vietnam for an in-depth discussion.

Starting about 1978, Hollywood’s first films showed the war as chaotic insanity. In his book Vietnam at 24 Frames a Second, Jeremy Devine cites the four horsemen — The Boys in Company C, Go Tell the Spartans, Coming Home, and The Deerhunter — as blazing the trail for bringing the war to the big screen. But unlike World War II films, Hollywood films about the Vietnam War focused on the jungle, the combat, and the overall experience. In production and representation, Apocalypse Now best captures all of these themes, though the documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse provides further depth than the usual behind-the-scenes production documentaries.

PBS aired a series titled Vietnam: A Television History. Broadcast in 1983 as part of the American Experience series, the 13 episodes provided a chronology of events that was well received. In 1997, PBS rebroadcast the series, this time omitting episode 2 (“The First Vietnam War”) and episode 13 (“Legacies”). The later released DVD series also excluded these episodes. These omissions drew criticism for their tampering with history, and some criticisms went so far as to call it “censorship.”

Here are 10 documentaries about the Vietnam War and its aftershocks to explore if you seek more information beyond the upcoming Burns and Novick film. Even though it covers an immense variety of perspectives, no single documentary — even at 18 hours — can give voice to everyone.

1. Hearts and Minds (Peter Davis, 1974)

A Vietnamese who lost his family during a bombing angrily protests the situation and its futility in Hearts and Minds.
Hearts and Minds is harrowing in its emotion and scathing in its critique. Davis juxtaposes official voices from the U.S. government with those who suffered from their decisions. One sequence features a Vietnamese funeral with families burying multiple dead, and wailing survivors, devastated with grief, attempt to climb into the graves with them. The scene is intercut with comments from General William Westmoreland, who says, “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient.” Hearts and Minds struggled for distribution, particularly after former National Security Advisor Walt Rostow attempted to stop its release. Hearts and Minds won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature.

2. Daughter from Danang (Gail Dolgin and Vincente Franco, 2002)

In April 1975, more than 10,000 children were evacuated from Vietnam. The children were adopted around the world, including the United States. While many of the children were orphans, some, particularly biracial children with American fathers and Vietnamese mothers, were given up by their families. Daughter from Danang tells the story of Heidi Bub (Mai Thi Hiep), who was adopted and raised in Tennessee by a mother who minimized Heidi’s Vietnamese identity. As an adult Heidi receives an opportunity to return to Vietnam and reunite with her biological family. The cameras follow her to the reunion and her return to her own husband and children in Tennessee. The film makes for an interesting meditation on American identity.

3. The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (Errol Morris, 2003)

If you read any of Robert McNamara’s books, you know he is a highly intelligent and accomplished man. The former U.S. Secretary of Defense wrote In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, wherein he examines the war’s failings. For The Fog of War, McNamara interviewed with director Errol Morris for 20 hours, which was edited down to two hours along with archival materials. Morris won his first Best Documentary Feature Oscar with this film. The Unknown Known, with Donald Rumsfeld, follows a similar pattern.

4. In the Year of the Pig (Emile de Antonio, 1968)

Cover art image for Emile de Antonio’s In the Year of the Pig.
Emile de Antonio remains sadly underappreciated or and relatively unknown in today’s documentary popular culture. de Antonio specialized in documentaries about political issues. The Year of the Pig is a compilation film that brought together footage from interviews and archives to show the war’s origins and to critique them as well.

5. Sad Song of Yellow Skin (Michael Rubbo, 1970)

While many documentaries focus on the battlefield and the soldiers, Sad Song of Yellow Skin shows the people affected by the war off the frontlines. In particular, Michael Rubbo observes street children in Saigon, and his voiceover offers his personal commentary and observations on what he witnesses there. This film was made for the National Film Board of Canada.

6. Be Good, Smile Pretty (Tracy Droz Tragos, 2003)

Cover art from Tracy Droz Tragos’s Be Good, Smile Pretty.
Tracy Droz Tragos was three months old when her father died in an ambush during the Vietnam War. Searching online for her father’s name many years later, she found a narrative (perhaps this one) about the circumstances surrounding his death. That search and the story inspired her to seek more information about the father she knew so little about. Starting the conversation with her mother in Be Good, Smile Pretty, Droz Tragos creates a deeply personal documentary in learning more about him and about the soldiers who served with him.

7. Sir! No Sir! (David Zeiger, 2005)

While we most often think of war protestors as those who remained outside the military,
Sir! No Sir! examines the role of protest and subversion among military personnel during the Vietnam War. It uncovers the overlooked GI Movement, which brought the peace demonstrations to within the military. Movement members produced newspapers, organized protests, distributed leaflets, and engaged other activities. This documentary weaves interviews with print and video archives to create a compelling story.

8. Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam (Bill Couturié, 1987)

Also a book, Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam uses personal letters from American soldiers and archival materials to create an on-the-ground view of the war. Celebrities such as Robert De Niro, Robert Downey Jr., and Michael J. Fox contributed their voices to the project.

9. The Anderson Platoon (Pierre Schoendoerffer, 1967)

The Anderson Platoon offers the cinematic experience of an embedded filmmaker. Pierre Schoendoerffer joined the 1st Calvary Division in 1966 and stayed with them in September and October of that year. He captured the raw events of these soldiers’ experiences, including reconnaissances, battles, and deaths, not to mention their raw fears and hopes as well. Named for platoon leader Captain Joseph B. Anderson Jr., the documentary went on to win the Best Documentary Feature Oscar in 1967.

10. Vietnam, Long Time Coming (Jerry Blumenthal, Peter Gilbert, and Gordon Quinn, 1998)

An athlete rests during Vietnam, Long Time Coming.
Vietnam, Long Time Coming follows a team of cyclists who enter a 16-day, 1,100-mile bike ride through Vietnam, an event organized by World TEAM (The Exceptional Athlete Matters). Veterans throughout the United States and Vietnam participated, among them many participants with differing ability levels such as blindness and missing limbs, but all athletes nonetheless. The ride provides some healing for veterans from both sides of the war as they ride together throughout the Vietnam countryside.

An Ode to the City Symphony (so to Speak)

The ferry arrives in the opening moments of Manhatta.

The most interesting periods of documentary history are the transition periods of adopting and adapting new technologies. The late 1800s saw the Lumiere brothers’ cinematograph capturing and projecting moving images from the backpack-size device.

The 1930s saw the experiments with spoken words on the soundtracks. Sometimes they were recorded on location, but more likely they were recorded in a studio and dubbed in later.

Perhaps the most cited era, the 1960s saw a convergence of technologies enabling lighter, quieter cameras and synchronous sound, thus seemingly allowing access to more intimate spaces than before and capture of more spontaneous moments.

More recently, animation techniques, interactive technologies, and augmented reality technologies have proven fertile grounds for further experimentation.

One of the more intriguing eras for me was the 1920s and the experiments with editing — Dziga Vertov, in particular. His montages in Man with a Movie Camera create a precise, poetic world through image juxtaposition and pacing.

This montage style inspired others in documentary and fiction. From documentary in this era emerged the city symphony. As the name suggests, the city symphony combines images of metropolises with orchestral music toward providing a snapshot of these urban locales, which still were somewhat new even then.

Beautiful framing of this bridge in Manhatta.

Along with Man with a Movie Camera revealing multiple Russian cities, other famous city symphonies include Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis (1927), Etudes sur Paris (1928), and Rien que les heures (1926). My favorite from this genre and era is Regen (Rain, 1929), by Joris Ivens. The shadowed bike against the puddle is one of the more famous documentary images.

During a visit to the Minneapolis Institute of Art recently, I found a piece of this documentary history tucked to the side of one of the exhibits. Showing in a tiny booth with seats for a few was Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand’s Manhatta (1921). The about 10-minute short ran on a loop.

Manhatta is one of the first city symphonies. Its images show the modern city of Manhattan, including the skyscrapers, the city streets, the ferry, bridges, railyards, and other aspects of urban life. Some intertitles borrow from Walt Whitman, enhancing the poetic feel of the piece.

As much as Manhatta is about locations in the city, it is also about the people in the city. They crowd onto the ferry, stepping off en masse after the gate releases. Individuals walk the sidewalks of a cemetery, while others contemplate grave markers from the benches. They walk on bridges and streets. Workers build the next skyscraper, with shots starting close on them and moving further back, shrinking them against the city’s dominating skyline.

Almost everyone, even children, wears a hat. Why don’t we wear hats anymore?

A worker helping construct the next spire in the skyline.

The skyscrapers offer a sight to behold. A title reads, “High growths of iron, / slender, strong / splendidly uprising / toward clear skies.” A camera perched on a roof slowly scales down the tall skyscrapers toward the shorter buildings below. Another shot almost lovingly pans up a tall building. In most of the images, the camera remains still, thus making the few instances of camera motion even more pronounced.

These thematically organized images offer a portrait of the city that almost feels timeless. Some visual elements certainly date the images, including the cars and the clothing styles, but they almost feel like today’s city as well, with their crowds, construction, views, and activities.

Overall, Manhatta was a neat find within the museum. It was nestled in a modern exhibit that included painted walls and framed images that blended seamlessly, and, perhaps, timelessly.

11 Sites about Documentary You Should be Reading

The landscape for documentaries and writing about them has changed immensely during the last 20 years. Back then, only occasional news stories or infrequent emerging blogs wrote about them. A respected resource, DocumentaryFilms.net took off when it became a collective blog. The writers behind The Documentary Blog drew a following. Christopher Campbell ran an independent documentary blog before moving to the now-defunct Documentary Channel.

Of course, times change. News sites now regularly cover cinematic documentaries and some festival favorites. Sites about documentary fade or stop as their writers pursue other projects. The Documentary Blog’s last update appeared in January 2014. Documentaryfilms.net last saw participation in 2011.

But great writing dedicated to documentary is out there. In no particular order, here are 11 sites and blogs that cover documentary on a regular basis.

1. What (not) to Doc

What Not to Doc is from Basil Tsiokos, a festival programmer, festival director, and documentary producer. This frequently updated blog offers information about new releases and overviews of documentaries in major festivals around the world. Releases covered include multiple media and venues, such as cinemas, festivals, streaming, and broadcast.

2. Nonfics

Nonfics is dedicated to documentary reviews, interviews, and in-depth commentary. It regularly features lists of the best documentaries to check out on Netflix and Amazon Prime. Nonfics is part of the Film School Rejects group. Christopher Campbell is editor and one of the key writers.

3. The NFB

The National Film Board of Canada provides a national voice in Canadian media and social issues. The NFB is particularly strong with documentaries (one semi-joke suggested documentary as Canada’s national genre), and its blog offers a section dedicated to the form. Posts often suggest documentaries about topics, such as fishing, adolescence, and Canadian rock music.

4. All These Wonderful Things

Written by A.J. Schnack, All These Wonderful Things reveals an insider’s look at documentary production, distribution, and the overall scene. Though not updated since 2011, it still contains a wealth of material and insights to explore. (And maybe citing it here will inspire some new posts…)

5. Center for Media and Social Impact

The Center for Media and Social Impact is an important group founded by Pat Aufderheide at American University. While the center supports film series and a conference, it also delves into policy and issues facing public media. The blog often addresses fair use issues, but it also gets into social change and other topics.

6. International Documentary Association

The International Documentary Association is a U.S.-based professional documentary organization that provides education, awareness, and funding. It hosts influential awards and screening series. The organization’s blog consists a weekly roundup, screening suggestions, and more. Also check out the magazine for more in-depth materials.

7. Realscreen

Realscreen is an industry news site dedicated to nonfiction media and its media institutions. In addition to talking about productions, Realscreen follows changes in media ownership (such as Discovery buying Scripps properties) and prominent people taking on new positions. Its focus on television, including reality television, distinguishes it from other documentary sites.

8. Stranger than Fiction

Though a weekly New York screening series, Stranger Than Fiction also offers a Monday Memo. The Monday Memo deftly brings together documentary news and information into a readable weekly roundup. Occasional guest posts highlight New York City events, such as question-and-answer session following an Abacus: Small Enough to Jail screening.

9. Desktop Documentaries

Desktop Documentaries boasts a wealth of information about documentary production. The multi-author blog in particular offers information about storytelling, crowdfunding, and equipment. Some posts feature writing, while others feature short videos. Post writers even engage readers in the comments.

10. Point of View Magazine

Point of View Magazine is a quarterly magazine that focuses on Canadian documentary culture. Articles and blog posts include reviews, interviews, overviews, commentary, and technology. One piece delves into Canadian documentary history, with Canadian documentary makers winning Oscars, while others highlight documentary films in the NFB’s archive.

11. POV’s Documentary Blog

POV is a 30-year-old PBS series that airs documentaries with unique, personal perspectives. Its documentary blog covers its broadcasts, but the blog also covers almost everything related to documentary, including production issues, interviews, festival overviews, and so much more. Tom Roston is the most regular writer, while multiple guests bring in other voices.

Full disclosure: I must admit some bias with this last one as my better, if infrequent, writings have appeared on POV’s blog since 2011.

‘Hoop Dreams’ News Coverage Suggests a Different Kind of Impact

Popular film titles sometimes work their way into everyday language: Bucket List, Gaslight, Groundhog Day. “Hoop Dreams” is one of those film titles.

As part of my background research into Hoop Dreams, I pulled 996 articles mentioning the phrase from all the years available in the Lexis Nexis news database. About half of those stories referred to the film, but just as many did not. Among the latter, some patterns — both expected and unexpected — emerged.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the most dominant recurring pattern involves individuals and their aspirations. Most individuals — almost equally boys and girls — are athletes who seek success in sports, such as landing a scholarship, attending college, starting a new sport, or joining a team. Some individuals even abandon their sports dreams, such as one who gave up basketball to become a doctor.

These dreams know no geographical boundaries. While Chicago is the setting for the Hoop Dreams film, other dreamers live in Iowa, Nebraska, and Oklahoma. People chase their dreams across the globe to Germany, Canada, Croatia, Luxemborg, Israel, and India.

“Hoop Dreams” is a popular name for teams, camps, academies, and programs. Teams with the name play in West Virginia, Hawaii, Idaho, Mississippi, and Pennsylvania. Camps and academies appear in Connecticut, West Virginia, North Carolina, and Australia. Programs include Hoop Dreams in Lexington, KY; ABCD Hoop Dreams in Boston; and YMCA Hoop Dreams in Hamilton, Ontario. Programs also appear in England and Australia. Do an Internet search and you’ll probably find even more than the ones listed here.

Tournaments run in Georgia and California. The Pescadero High School Hoop Dreams Tournament schedules both boys’ and girls’ teams. One tournament involved wheelchairs.

A cool program was founded by Susie Kay in Washington, D.C., to help area students attend college. Kay claimed that Arthur Agee, one of the two boys appearing in the film, reminded her of her own students. Named for the film, the Hoop Dreams Scholarship Fund started as a single-day basketball fundraiser in 1996. That first round raised $3,000. Within a few years, that tournament and other fundraising efforts expanded to $125,000. The program ended in 2009 following the economic downturn.

Very few stories mentioned the NBA at all. A couple stories connected “hoop dreams” with buying NBA teams or stadiums, and one referred to Mesho Marrow’s dream of founding a women’s basketball team in St. Louis. That dream became reality with the Missouri Arch Angels, named for the city’s iconic structure on the Mississippi River. The team plays in the Women’s Blue Chip Basketball League.

The phrase applies mostly to youth, but one 90-year-old also harbored her own hoop dream. Josephine Brager sought induction into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame. She played basketball pre-World War II for the All-American Redheads and later the Dallas Hornets. The Redheads toured the country playing against men’s teams using the men’s rules — and often won. Sadly, Brager wasn’t chosen for induction.

“Hoop dreams” also means sports other than basketball. It refers to netball, which is an international cousin to U.S. basketball. Rhythm gymnasts and hoop dancers also are hoop dreamers.

One sports reference took me a little bit to puzzle out. According to one story, the Shamrock Rovers Football Club had “hoop dreams.” But why would an Irish football club have “hoop dreams?” Because one of the team’s nicknames is “Hoops.”

In Morgantown, West Virginia, a home offered a “hoop dream” of its own. In addition to the five bedrooms, five bathrooms, and home theater, the house had an indoor basketball court. The asking price was more than $1 million.

Some of the more creative mentions of “hoop dreams” have nothing to do with basketball or even sports. One gig announcement cited “Hoop Dreams,” a band, playing in Hobart, Tasmania. After a little digging, I found the band was based in Virginia and had a Cure-like sound, particularly on the track “Knife Fights.” Before signing the band, a record company contacted Kartemquin Films about the band using the name, which filmmakers Steve James and Peter Gilbert were fine with.

“Hoop dreams” also occur in fashion, in one case for earrings. The story read, “Orbs in all styles and sizes are earmarks of high style.” Hopefully, the look is better than the pun.

My favorite reference connected the film, identity, sport, and art all in one installation. Inspired by the film, Esmaa Mohamoud created an art installation called “Heavy, Heavy (Hoop Dreams).” The installation consists of 60 concrete basketballs, each weighing about 31 pounds. The “heavy” refers to the relationship between basketball and black male culture, according to Mohamoud.

Before the news started covering the film in 1994, the only mention of “hoop dreams” appeared in a 1987 story about “hoops and dreams.” Every other non-film-related story I pulled from the database appeared after the film’s release, from about 1997 forward.

A search for the phrase through an Ngram viewer offers similar findings, particularly in the phrase’s first appearances. In a search for the phrase from 1950 to 2017, the phrase first appears in 1993, grows in 1994, and peaks in 1999.

All of these findings suggest a documentary impact of a different kind: that of a name on sports, music, fashion, art, and culture.

Special thanks to Tim Horsburgh, distribution and communications director at Kartemquin Films, for suggesting the Ngram search and the other film names mentioned in this post.

Answering the Call from Herman in ‘The Deeper They Bury Me’

An opening screen sets the background for Herman’s story and sets up the unifying narrative for users.

Sometimes a story is so tragic that it needs multiple media versions to encompass its depths and traumas more fully. Herman Wallace’s more than 40 years of solitary confinement offers just that kind of story.

Solitary confinement isolates a prisoner within a 6-by-9-foot cell for 22-24 hours a day. Prison guards provide the only human contact. Length of confinement ranges from days to weeks, but can extend to years or even decades, as in Herman’s case. The psychological effects of this punishment are devastating.

Herman’s story has inspired an art installation, a documentary, and an interactive documentary. In 2003 artist Jackie Surnell asked Herman, “What kind of house does a man who has lived in a six-foot-by-nine-foot-cell for over thirty years dream of?” Based on his answers, Surnell created an installation titled “The House that Herman Built.” That installation later inspired the documentary film, Herman’s House, directed by Angad Bhalla.

From the National Film Board of Canada, The Deeper They Bury Me: A Call from Herman is an interactive documentary that extends Herman’s story with solitary confinement. The Deeper They Bury Me, created by Anghad Bhalla and Ted Biggs, places users at the other end of a phone call from Herman. They listen to Herman’s own words, and they also can explore scenes from his past and present, including a room in his dream house.

This web-based interactive documentary begins after clicking “A Call from Herman” on the opening screen, and Herman previews his experiences, talking about his cell, its size, and his lack of freedom for even in that one hour outside his cell, he is in chains. He says, “I can only dream — that’s what the house is all about.”

After his introduction, a phone rings, and a green prompt tells users to answer. The automated voice of the prison phone system tells the name of who is calling, how to accept the call, and how long remains on the call. A 20-minute timer counts down in the lower right of the screen. At various times the automated phone voice interrupts to remind users of the time remaining.

Three of the modules users can click to learn more about Herman’s story.
The visual component consists of a gray space with sketches in the foreground and background within a 360-degree circumference. The background sketches set the prison scene with guard towers and fences. The foreground images offer thematic modules about Herman’s background, though some only become active after completing the available modules first, possibly in attempt to control the timeline. Some images include a wagon, shackles, justice scales, prison guard tower, a house with a rose, and a bird cage with an open door.

Some modules, like the wagon, offer an audiovisual sequence, including archival footage and music, with Herman’s voice explaining his upbringing. Other modules encourage more exploration with highlights around objects that grow brighter and emit a sound effect to encourage clicking on them. These objects then offer another angle to Herman’s experiences as connected to the item.

In the rose house, for example, appears a mock-up of Herman’s ideal bedroom, with an open layout, a nearby greenhouse, and a generous bathroom. Objects include a book, bearskin rug, greenhouse, and a bathtub. For the most part, clicking objects results in more commentary from Herman. With the bearskin rug, for example, he admits that he would get rid of it because he sees it as inhumane. With the bathroom he seeks something much larger than his cell. On clicking the book, however, a series of interviews with prison architects and similar experts plays, and they discuss both Herman’s house, the psychology behind it, and their own prison designs. One expresses some regret in designing solitary confinement cells.

The sketch of Herman’s ideal bedroom offers users the opportunity to explore Herman’s home and to learn more about the effects of extended solitary confinement.

The solitary isolation cell offers another space to explore. The clickable items include a light, the door, a potato jar, toilet, and a Malcolm X poster. With the potato jar, for example, Herman explains how he would keep a potato and how it compares to a fish in a small aquarium. Both confinements limit potential growth. He then compares them both to his own existence: “It’s the same thing with human life.” As Herman speaks, animations illustrate his comments. Herman discusses prisoners committing suicide, and an animated noose swings by. As he discusses the constant surveillance, even while on the toilet, large, animated eyes appear.

If users fail to click on anything in a timely manner, excerpts from Herman’s phone calls play, or Herman will ask about them still being there. Within each section a progress bar oddly counts the time elapsing, not remaining. Users can toggle this timer to listen to different parts of the audio, or they can click an arrow to return to previous screens.

Navigating the space created within The Deeper They Bury Me requires some care, especially with touchpads. I attempted to interact this piece on a laptop, and when trying to “look around” the space using two fingers as I usually do for scrolling, the interface would often send me back to the previous screens. Switching to a mouse eliminated this problem.

A timer reminds users how long they have before the call ends.
The timer from the prison telephone system as a unifying device offers mixed results. On a narrative level, it integrates users into the experience, giving them a dedicated role and thus a more immersive experience. On an interactive level, though, the timer continues counting throughout the “call,” and the automated voice interrupts whatever plays in the module. But 20 minutes is not enough time to complete exploring all the sections and listening to all the comments. As the timer winds down, the interactive documentary sends users to the epilogue no matter their location in the modules. Perhaps that is the point, though it remains unclear.

This interactive documentary operates largely without instructions on how to engage with its materials. The few titles and text blocks that do appear connect with the story, but they do need more balance between exposition and instruction. The “Hear more from Herman” button, for example, offers no clear indication of what that button might do. That “more” might refer to essays, external links, or even a restart. It actually sends users back into the experience without the timer.

Herman Wallace spent 40-plus years in solitary confinement. After appeals and declining health, Wallace was granted release October 1, 2013. He died just three days later, on October 4, 2013. All three of these multimedia materials tell his story and raise awareness about the horrors of solitary confinement.

Superglue-ing Dead Flies to Create Reality: Two Wildlife Filmmakers’ Memoirs

Nature documentaries can be amazing: The majestic scenery, the wild bird’s melodic call, the killer snake’s dramatic close-up, the lion’s gruesome assault on the savanna. But these documentaries’ awesome spectacles hide the obstacles that go into capturing them. While human participants generally offer some degree of decorum, animals don’t sign consent agreements or take direction.

Memoirs by wildlife filmmakers show just how challenging it is to navigate the line between the real and the visual while working with wild animals. For this post, I read two memoirs, Snarl for the Camera: Tales of a Wildlife Cameraman by James Gray and Shark Tracker: Confessions of an Underwater Cameraman by Richard Fitzpatrick.

The memoirs share themes. Both writers fell in love with animals and nature as children, and both studied everything they could about them, either through university studies in Fitzpatrick’s case or more independently in Gray’s case. Both books recount experiences with different species. Gray and Fitzpatrick face perils when the animals get shy or aggressive before the camera, and they also face equipment issues in getting just the right shots and hauling expensive equipment around the globe.

Richard Fitzpatrick’s memoir had “shark” in the title so of course I had to read it. A specialist in filming marine life, particularly around Australia, Fitzpatrick recounts meeting undersea creatures both exotic and mundane: great white sharks, grey nurse sharks, eels, squids, jellyfish, clownfish (like Dory), and pearlfish, which take shelter in a sea cucumber’s anus. While majestic sharks and other venomous creatures comprise some of his filming obstacles, what was the most troublesome? Spawning coral. He writes

Of all the events I have to film, coral spawning stresses me out the most. Getting the location, the timing and the light right is one thing — then you have to hope that the sea conditions will be favourable.

With four years lapsing before successfully getting that footage, no wonder it is so stressful.

Filming underwater with sea creatures poses multiple threats: oxygen depletion, decompression sickness, equipment failure, and animal attacks. Despite them, Fitzpatrick maintains an energy and excitement about interacting with and filming these creatures. He also recounts a couple of occasions when he plays jokes on other scientists and divers, not to mention his own injuries and hospital runs.

Not all of the challenges in filming wildlife come from the animals. One incident in particular caught my attention because it resonates with Blackfish, the 2013 documentary about Tilikum the killer whale, his horrible living conditions, and his killing of his handlers. In 2003 Sea World in Australia planned a shark exhibit, and Fitzpatrick was asked to examine the condition of a captured tiger shark. He concluded that the shark, which was held in too small of a space for it to move freely and thus was damaging its body (and probably its mind), should be let go. The backlash he experienced was swift, isolating, and defamatory. Even Steve Irwin, the crocodile hunter, accused him.

While Fitzpatrick’s recollections focus mostly on filming under the sea, Gray’s memories stay mostly on dry land. Gray offers experiences in filming a wide variety of animals from around the globe: polar bears, panda bears, caimans, fiu-fius, stick nest rats, gibbons, and vultures. What I appreciate about Gray’s memoir is the level of detail he provides in his writing. He delves more into the process of getting just that right shot, which often results from a series of near and far misses and a handful of successes.

Some of these processes might raise an eyebrow. In one assignment, Gray needed a shot of a cricket with a fly on its back. Crickets jump, and flies, well, fly, so how … ? Gray explains their staging:

We put a dead fly on the back of a live cricket. At first the cricket’s movements unseated its jockey, but with the application of a drop of superglue, we had that shot.

In another assignment, Gray needed to film human lice laying eggs. He jokes about his previous experience with lice as a parent: “Poisoning them, squashing them and eliminating them with eye-stinging shampoo were more in my line.” But then he learns that in order for the lice to breed, they need a steady diet of human blood. To feed them, Gray volunteers his own arm as a food source, and he donates his own hair stuck in plasticine for their egg-laying site. The jokes continue: “Lice that refuse to breed sounds like a dream come true for people working in public health, but for me it was a problem.” This kind of humor weaves throughout the book.

Gray in particular focuses on equipment and its uses in getting just the right shot. He mentions using a wind-up Bolex for his first film. Weather hazards affect camera performance, and some shoots require getting down into the mud or freezing in arctic winds. Getting aerial shots from a helicopter require rigging the camera with bungees. Gray also explains something he calls “camera courage,” which arrests the dangerous reality of the animal on the other side of the lens, rendering it a “harmless” image instead. This courage appeared while he tried to film a panda and an elephant, but someone pulled him away just in time.

The biggest surprise of wildlife filmmaking to those used to seeing the drama and glamour of nature documentaries? Waiting. According to both Fitzpatrick and Gray, waiting is the hardest part. Fitzpatrick notes the “hours of utter boredom that come hand in hand with shark research. Discovery Channel never show that side of things on their ‘Shark Week’ documentaries, but in reality waiting makes up larger proportion of the job.” Gray recalls days of strategic waiting for hearing mating calls or capturing polar bears emerging from their winter dens.

Both authors share concluding thoughts in their memoirs. Fitzpatrick ends with “Richard’s Rules,” which include treating airlines with respect when checking in camera cases, wearing “rubber gloves when handling electric animals,” and staying “away from the pointy end of a shark.” James ends with a rumination about his intentions toward becoming a cameraman in the first place: “In light of my experience though, I’m not quite sure how much I have been helping to save the world, and I’m even starting to wonder whether being a cameraman puts me on the side of the good guys at all.” He also wonders about these wildlife films just being free adverts for the tourism industry.

Book Goes Behind the Scenes of Oscar-Connected Documentary Productions

Documentary Case Studies book cover.
Documentary Case Studies book cover.
Documentary production processes differ greatly from the more streamlined (factory?) approaches of mainstream fiction media. Without the written script, paid actors, and deep budgets, documentary makers face many variables that might advance, pause, or change a film’s progress. Some of those variables might even halt the film’s production altogether.

Learning about what happens on other films can help documentary filmmakers handle the challenges that might appear in their own productions. Documentary Case Studies: Behind the Scenes of the Greatest (True) Stories Ever Told, by Jeffrey Swimmer, provides just those kinds of insights and more.

For this accessible volume, Swimmer interviews directors and producers who worked on Oscar-nominated and Oscar-winning documentaries. The chapters cover films such as 20 Feet from Stardom, The Act of Killing, Food, Inc., Gasland, Into The Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport, Man on Wire, Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision, Restrepo, Sergio, Sound and Fury, Spellbound, Super Size Me, and Undefeated.

To write these chapters, Swimmer conducted interviews with Josh Aronson, Greg Barker, Jeffrey Blitz, Simon Chinn, Josh Fox, Mark Harris, Sebastian Junger, Robert Kenner, Daniel Linsday, James Marsh, T.J. Martin, Frieda Lee Mock, Morgan Neville, Deborah Oppenheimer, Joshua Oppenheimer, Elise Pearlstein, Morgan Spurlock, and Roger Weisberg.

Though structured by title, the book develops several themes across these interviews. One of the largest overarching themes is working with participants. Though often quite watchable and engaging, charismatic subjects can still prove challenging. For Man on Wire, high-wire walker Philippe Petit is just that charismatic subject, but Petit also proved reluctant to consent to the production and demanded involvement other aspects, such as interview choices, interview filming, and dramatizations. Sergio offered a different kind of challenge with the charismatic subject. Though Sérgio Vieira de Mello had died in 2003, interview participants remained reluctant to say anything negative about him on camera.

While a few filmmakers start with their own stake in an issue, such as with Josh Fox and Gasland, most are outsiders to the cultures and communities appearing in their films. In creating Sound and Fury, which offers an inside look at the Deaf community and the divisive issue of cochlear implants, Josh Aronson needed to find access, to gain the community’s trust, and to show the community’s views fairly. He learned some sign language to help with communicating, but the filmed signed interviews still required careful translation to prevent alienating the community.

Of course, finding and choosing the right interview participants remains the fundamental challenge for any documentary production. Spellbound follows the National Spelling Bee, which draws finalists from regional competitions. How do you choose engaging candidates who might make it to the finals from such a large pool? is one question that Jeffrey Blitz faced. Mark Harris and Deborah Oppenheimer also faced a similar challenge with Into The Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport. Morgan Spurlock solved the “casting” problem for his fast-food experiment by “casting” himself in Super Size Me.

Offering a range of interview voices is important, but some participants remain reluctant to talk at all. This situation arises in particular with documentaries that address political issues, including Food, Inc., Super Size Me, and Gasland.

These participants become part of the documentary’s story, which creates more issues. Many materials about the Holocaust exist, so Harris and Oppenheimer needed to find a new angle. Food, Inc., needed to balance gruesome scenes within its story. Morgan Neville encountered the largely overlooked stories of backup singers in 20 Feet from Stardom, but he struggled to bring those stories into one narrative until postproduction. Every chapter in Swimmer’s book offers points about these storytelling struggles.

Money — mostly the absence thereof — was also a prominent refrain in these chapters. Some started with funding but still needed completion funds. Some maxed out credits cards and juggled them to make expenses meet. Some started with nest eggs and soon ran out, accruing more debt. Of course, the money woes impacted travel, equipment, and other expenses, which in turned impacted interviews and storytelling.

The chapter I highlighted most was about The Act of Killing, which flips the script on genocide documentaries to focus on the perpetrators and not the victims. Director Joshua Oppenheimer worked with one of those perpetrators, Anwar Congo, to recreate the multiple murder scenes. Inspired by the Hollywood dream factory, Congo had some extravagant ideas about faked chase scenes and on-location scenes, but Oppenheimer turned him down. The chapter’s strength lies in the discussions of the trauma that Oppenheimer himself experienced both during the production and the nightmares afterward.

Swimmer writes in a conversational style that makes for a quick and engaging read. The quoted remarks and the background information mesh well together, and Swimmer avoids unrelated tangents and academic theorizing. His choice of Oscar-connected titles is a savvy one, and the production issues these case studies reveal are relevant for filmmakers and documentary enthusiasts alike.

New Documentary Offers Advice for Thriving with Age

Carl Reiner, George Shapiro, Mel Brooks, and Norman Lear in If You're Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast
Carl Reiner, George Shapiro, Mel Brooks, and Norman Lear in If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast, from HBO.

Popular media and culture celebrate youth. Soft news stories show us how to feel young and look young in 73 easy steps. Rates of cosmetic surgery increase each year. If 60 is the new 40 and 50 is the new 30, then 41 must be the new minimum drinking age. Time to get your new fake IDs, folks.

Of course, none of these ideas focus on actually staying young because reality and science fiction haven’t caught up to each other or the naked mole rat — yet.

But, a fascination exists when octogenarians, nonagenarians, and centenarians do, well, anything: dancing, running, writing, sky diving… Betty White continues acting in her 90s, starring most recently in Hot in Cleveland. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has developed a reputation for being a “badass” in her 80s as she continues to write strongly worded dissents and inspire jabot-ed Halloween costumes. And as Norman Lear complains in HBO’s new documentary If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast, people shouldn’t be surprised he can still touch his toes at age 93.

Directed by Danny Gold, If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast is a life-affirming and witty documentary that provides an elegant and positive way to think about aging with vitality. With the help of his nephew George Shapiro, Carl Reiner, 95, is our host in examining how people in their 90s not only live, but also thrive.

Ida Keeling took up running at age 67 to cope with her sons’ murders. Now 100, Keeling continues running and breaking records.
The documentary offers a series of portraits and interviews with nonagenarians and a couple centenarians. We meet 100-year-old Ida Keeling, who took up running after her sons’ murders to cope with depression. She was 67 at the time, and now she continues to break records with running at her age. Yoga expert Tao Porchon-Lynch, 97, learned to tango. Ray Olivere continues painting portraits, and Jim “Pee Wee” Martin continues sky diving and living in the house he built with his own hands.

The portraits and interviews also offer a who’s who in entertainment: Mel Brooks, Dick Van Dyke, Tony Bennett, Kirk Douglas, Stan Lee, Irving Fields, Betty White, Patricia Morison, and Harriett Thompson. All of them continue to engage life. Carl Reiner and Betty White write books. Tony Bennett still sings, and Irving Fields still writes songs and plays piano at a hotel. Harriett Thompson runs marathons.

Dan Buettner serves as the longevity expert in this documentary. He cites five keys to vitality:

  1. Physical fitness
  2. Cognitive awareness
  3. Life informed by passion and values
  4. Contribution
  5. Ongoing achievement

Reiner adds a sixth item to that list: A sense of humor. Along with all the stories, so many of them have jokes. So many jokes. Fyvush Finkel, 92, cracks, “Half of my life is gone already.” In a conversation with Betty White, Reiner says, “You don’t lose your interest in sex but you lose your power.” Even the title comes from a joke by Reiner, though it is thrown on its ear when Reiner sees an older picture of himself in the obit for Polly Bergen.

Rounding out this gentle documentary are a bouncy jazz soundtrack and animated bits from “The 2000 Year Old Man” sketch done by Reiner and Brooks in the 1960s.

Aging terrifies many of us, but it shouldn’t. While this documentary won’t undo the deeply held ideas about growing old, its light-hearted approach does offer a better way to think it.

Navigating Violence and Alma’s Story in an Interactive Documemtary

The opening screen of Alma: A Tale of Violence
The opening screen of Alma: A Tale of Violence

In order to make interactive documentary reviews more focused and systematic, I will use the following outline: platform(s) used, story and structure, user role, navigation directions, navigation execution, and overall comments. Released first in 2011, Alma: A Tale of Violence represents my first application of this approach.

Alma: A Tale of Violence is an interactive documentary available online, on the iPad, and on Android. One of the earlier of the next generation of interactive documentaries, it tells the story of Alma, who joined a Guatemalan gang as a teen and managed to leave with her life as an adult. This review focuses on the web and iPad versions.

The primary story in Alma: A Tale of Violence belongs to Alma herself. In an almost 40-minute video interview, Alma recounts her childhood, gang initiation, gang life, and life thereafter. The interview frames Alma in medium and close-up shots, ensuring our identification with her, though it also offers cutaways to her tattoos and fidgeting hands. Interestingly enough, that framing hides the fact that Alma is now confined to wheelchair.

Alma’s story is harrowing. Alma explains how the gang offered acceptance, belonging, support, and purpose — things unavailable at home.

One price for that belonging, though, is a life of violence. As part of her initiation, Alma helped members kill a woman whom they had just raped. Another part of her initiation involved the choice between her own rape and being beaten. Alma chose the beating because she didn’t want to appear weak.

Another price for that belonging is a lack of freedom. The gang dictated its lower-ranked members’ activities, which often involved collecting protection fees and killing those who refused or couldn’t pay. Alma killed one person for this reason.

Though not explicitly articulated, a third price for that belonging is fear, particularly of the violence turning back on Alma herself. Alma left without permission for two years, and when she returned, she feared the gang’s retribution. This time, none came — they invited her back in. After becoming pregnant and suffering abusive relationships, Alma requested to leave the gang altogether. They beat her briefly, and she left the meeting thinking the situation fine among them. As she walked away, bullets flew. One struck her and left her paralyzed. The bounty still remains on her head.

While this interview plays, a secondary storyline appears above her. The upper “track,” for lack of a better word, offers a combination of still images, B-roll, archival images, sketches, and animations. Sometimes, the upper track offers a thematic connection to Alma’s recollections, such as the pictures of poor neighborhoods. Other times, the upper track depicts Alma’s recollections, such as the animated illustrations of her gang initiation or of a gang rape. Though nonetheless disturbing, the animations offer ways to show the violence without spectacle.

The Maras module from Alma: A Tale of Violence
The Maras module from Alma: A Tale of Violence
In addition to the video sequence, Alma features four information modules that offer background about Guatemala, maras, violence, and prevention. Each module appears like a slideshow, with images, statistics, and quotes. Some of the images also appear in upper track of Alma’s interview, but overall this part remains separate from it.

The integration of user, navigation, and narrative ensures a cohesive interactive documentary experience. Casting the user in a role helps with this integration. Alma, though, offers no particular role for its users. The directions only tell users how to access the content, which amounts mostly to swiping on the tablet or moving up and down with a mouse and to tapping or clicking on these respective devices.

The navigation in Alma is straightforward and largely similar between the web and iPad versions. The interview with Alma herself allows the expected starting and stopping of the video, as well as scrolling up to see the upper track and scrolling down to see Alma again. Users can choose not to switch between tracks as well. But, other than the up and down, start and pause, no other interactive features appear in the video.

The modules offer even fewer interactive features. An internal table of contents allows skipping through the modules’ information, or users can progress through each one sequentially, slide by slide, with a click or a tap.

While the navigation’s simplicity allows for easy access to all parts of this interactive documentary, its simplicity undermines the interactive documentary’s cohesiveness. The narrative disconnection between the video interview and the information modules also fails to help create a sense of unity. Overall, the interactive options here remain quite limited.

One of the sketches appearing in Alma: A Tale of Violence
One of the sketches appearing in Alma: A Tale of Violence
That said, Alma still tells a powerful story. One thing I greatly appreciated about this interactive documentary was the extended interview. Too often in contemporary documentary participants speak briefly, providing on-point information and focused emotion while revealing little about their character or personality. Alma’s screen time allows her to explain her backstory, her motivations, her fears, and her outcomes. The story proves difficult to tell (and hear, for that matter), and Alma breaks down at certain points. The camera continues rolling, but no voice or editing transition interrupts her thoughts.

Another thing I appreciated was the background information’s separation from Alma’s narrative. Balancing oral storytelling and factual details provides a difficult line to walk, with the facts often interrupting the flow of more personal details. The separation ensures a smoothness to Alma’s extended interview that might not be there otherwise.