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.

A Simple Question Belies Depths in ‘The Jinx’

Sometimes an interview question seems so simple that it belies the cultural depths that inform it.

A question like this appears in Andrew Jarecki’s The Jinx: The Life and Murders of Robert Durst (2015). This six-episode HBO series retraces the unsolved murders linked to Durst through archival footage, reenactments, and interviews, including with Durst himself. Throughout the episodes, Jarecki asks questions from off camera in order to move the inquiry along.

The second chapter, titled “Poor Little Rich Boy,” addresses the traumas of Durst’s childhood and the disappearance of his first wife, Kathie. According to the “official” story, Kathie took the train back to New York City, arrived at her apartment around 11:30 p.m., called Robert to let him know she was there, and called her medical school to report her absence the next day. After that last call, she disappeared. After a few days, Durst filed a missing persons report. Kathie’s friends, however, believed that Durst killed her, and they undertook their own investigation into the situation.

Part of Jarecki’s revelations include details about Kathie’s dealing with abuse that escalated during their marriage. It included hitting, kicking, shoving, a forced abortion, and monitoring that required Kathie check in with Robert via telephone wherever she went. Her friends recounted Kathie’s fears over Robert’s potential anger. Kathie also had filed for divorce, but Robert had refused.

The question comes in an interview with Kathie’s friend Geraldine McInerney. With the documentary’s uncovering of these abusive behaviors, they had become the elephant in the room. Jarecki asks, “Why didn’t she leave?”

McInerney pauses for a moment and then replies, “I don’t know. I think she was afraid of him.”

While the question fits the context of the series, it also points to the myths surrounding domestic violence. Groups such as the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence and the Domestic Abuse Project offer information that counter these myths. A hashtag campaign, #whyIstayed, also raises awareness.

Several reasons exist for why people stay in domestic violence situations. Some survivors remain unaware of options available to help them. They face cultural, religious, and familial pressures. Emotional issues such as low self-esteem and depression entrap them. Some abuses they endure ensure they cannot leave, such as tight control of finances, transportation, social activities, and communications. Many stay because of their children.

Leaving can pose more dangers to the person’s safety than remaining in the abusive relationship. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, someone who leaves an abusive relationship is 75 percent more likely to experience separation violence or even be murdered by the partner.

Jarecki’s investigation into Kathie’s relationship with Robert uncovers parallels these issues. The physical altercations increased over time. Robert monitored her movements, such as his calling during the party at her friend’s house the night she disappeared. Kathie’s friend recalls her being rattled by those calls. Another friend questioned why Kathie had to call and check in with Robert when she out.

A tougher decision becomes another example. Kathie got pregnant in the late 1970s, and Robert offered her the choice of the abortion or divorce. In his interview with Jarecki, Durst claimed that he was jinxed and didn’t want children. We have no insight into Kathie’s thoughts.

The police response to her disappearance also suggests the legal issues that might arise in domestic violence situations. Those who claim abuse sometimes struggle with police believing their stories and their seriousness. In the series the police do ask about the state of the marriage, but they figure she left of her own free will. Even with Kathie’s friends telling them about the situation, the original detectives make no further investigation in his disappearance and close the case as a missing persons file, not a murder.

The divorce filing, which had happened three days before, might have been the final straw as it represented a move to freedom and thus posed a threat to Robert’s control over her.

These comments here are not to say that Jarecki’s posing of the question furthers the myths of women staying in domestic violence situations. The question fits the context of the film, and it is a question many viewers might have had. What’s better, though, is how the film answers the question through its investigation into Kathie’s relationship with Durst and the points it raises about that relationship.

Constructing Conversations about Race in ‘Trick Bag’

Kartemquin Films’ Trick Bag: A Black and White Film tackles a tough subject: race issues in 1970s Chicago.

Their 1974 short film shows a series of interviews among people across Chicago during the early 1970s. These people, mostly youth, gather at parks, on street corners, and in people’s homes. Race issues dominate these interviews, though intersectionalities with class -— a theme across Kartemquin’s catalogue -— also appear. Brief sequences of well-chosen music and some voiceover comments set up each scene and its key idea.

Unlike the usual lone talking head, this short approaches these interviews as conversations. In a kitchen, for example, several men sit and talk about their experiences while serving in Vietnam. Each of the men, who remain unidentified, share comments and anecdotes about what they went through there. An African-American man talks about how he had time served and rank and yet white men still got promoted over him. A white man shares his story about being harassed by a higher-up. While the camera cuts from speaker to speaker, we also see and hear some reactions from the others in the room, such as a reaction shot of a man nodding or a two-shot with another man laughing.

Other scenes offer more insights into the interactions among the people talking. One girl early in the film talks about bringing an African-American woman to her apartment before attending a show, and the landlord calls and tells her to have the woman leave immediately. The girl refuses to remove her friend, and the landlord gives them a 30-day eviction notice. As she talks, several people laugh almost nervously, making her smile as she talks though the man framed in the shot with her listens intently without much facial expression.

A conversation outside a Schwinn bicycle factory shows the most exchange among the speakers. Some start the comments, and others chime in to agree. Still others raise different points to the conversation. Shots show some people talking and other people listening, such as an African-American man talking and a white man listening.

While the sequences are set up as conversations with multiple people present, the editing still focuses on one speaker at a time for the most part. The conversation approach complements the discussions about race and class within the film in that it sets up a flow of honest, direct exchange. No sugarcoating happens here; the problems are clearly stated. One man says, “They say there’s a race problem between blacks and whites. It’s not really as much a race problem so much as it is a class problem.” After talking about the differing treatment of African-American and white factory workers, another man says, “You know who really gets [deleted]? Mexicans and Puerto Ricans.”

The comment that most stuck with me was this one: “We’re losing like 5-6 dudes a year.” That’s a sobering comparison to the number lost each day in Chicago. It would be interesting to hear what these conversations sound like today.