Frederick Wiseman on At Berkeley: “Berkeley is Really the Face of Modern America”

“Making these films is a sport,” says veteran documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, who at 83 years old remains at the top of his game. “You have to be on your feet, running around, carrying equipment, for 16 to 17 hours a day. It’s never easy.”

Since the 1960s, Wiseman, a graduate of Yale Law School, has been tenaciously chronicling American institutions with a subtle yet persuasive rhetorical style, avoiding voiceover narration or expository subtitles in favor of a more thoughtful exploratory method of argument. For his 39th feature-length documentary, At Berkeley (opening in New York this week), it took 14 months of editing to nail his four-hour case about the plight of public education.

Even by Wiseman’s standards — he’s made films on such behemoths as Central Park and Madison Square Garden — At Berkeley was a particularly mammoth undertaking. For over 12 weeks, he shot 250 hours of footage at the venerable University of California school in an attempt to capture its varying moods, constituencies, and conflicts — no mean feat considering there are some 35,000 students, 3,500 faculty members, and administrative staff in the thousands. (Although, we learn, due to budget cuts, only a single lawnmower.) “It’s quite a large community,” says Wiseman. “And since I didn’t start the film with any particular thesis in mind, the question was how to unite various fragments into something that has a dramatic structure.”

Wiseman has created most of his documentaries in this manner. And while the films’ titles may sound banal — High School, Hospital, Zoo — Wiseman uses these distinct social organizations to offer greater insights into society and human nature as a whole. As he says, “Every film has to proceed on a literal and abstract level, and only if I think it works on both of those levels does a film work.”

At Berkeley, for example, gives viewers a glimpse into administrative budgetary meetings, choral and string-quartet performances, and seminars on Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond and the nature of time. But, above all, Wiseman’s latest is an urgent reflection of America’s economic crisis and the increasingly dire state of public funding of education in this country.

Wiseman is loath to make grand pronouncements — “I’m bad on cultural generalizations,” he says — but the film’s first lengthy sequence features an instructive quote from a white-haired authority figure, the school’s then-chancellor, Robert J. Birgeneau: “As less and less of our funds come from state government . . . how do we guarantee our public character? Because we must not compromise on that,” he says. “The country has many great private universities — Stanford, Harvard, et cetera — and it doesn’t need another one. It needs great public universities. And how are we going to do that in an environment where the state is continually disinvesting?” (According to Wiseman, state funding has dropped even lower since filming, down this year from 16 percent to just 9 percent.)

After eight months of editing individual scenes, Wiseman began assembling the movie and quickly realized that the chancellor’s statement had to come at the opening. “Because it defined so much of my experience while I was there,” recalls Wiseman, “I knew that I wanted to announce the theme of the financial crisis early.”

In addition to the nation’s economic troubles — which are also reflected in a scene right out of Occupy Wall Street, in which students stage a sit-in at the University library to protest tuition hikes — Wiseman saw other real-world analogues during his time at the school.

“Berkeley is really the face of modern America,” he says, “in that the country has become ethnically and racially diverse, and those ethnic and racial groups are achieving power, and they have to be paid attention to.”

Indeed, two of the most dramatic sequences in the film involve people of color speaking truth to power. Distilled from multiple hours of real-time discussions, these scenes — both involving black female students — reveal a complicated and thorny set of interactions, involving issues of race, class, and status. “I’m very much against the simplification of complex social issues,” Wiseman notes.

For all of his interest in “how our democracy functions,” as he defines it, Wiseman insists his movies are not meant to influence that democracy. “I don’t think there’s any direct consequence between film and social change,” he says. “That’s both a naïve and narcissistic point of view, because people have access to all kinds of information — movies, books, newspapers — so I don’t think any one thing is important.”

Rather, Wiseman sees himself not unlike some of the public educators he recently followed at Berkeley, “someone who wants to explore contemporary American life and help myself and others understand it better.”


How Mother of George’s Portrait of Dislocation Got Painted

African–born filmmaker Andrew Dosunmu’s Mother of George takes place in Brooklyn, but it might as well be set on another continent—or even planet. The story of a Nigerian couple trying to conceive a baby in New York, this visually evocative feature appropriates the intricately patterned textiles, blue and gold colors, and elaborate customs of their traditional Nigerian culture, all in a way that mirrors the characters’ sense of dislocation. “We wanted a little sci-fi feel,” says director of photography Bradford Young, who won the best cinematography prize at Sundance for his work on both Mother of George and David Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.

“I wanted to show a New York completely different from what you usually see,” says Dosunmu, an émigré himself, who moved to the city from Nigeria 18 years ago. “What I really love about it is that many immigrants have their own oases in this metropolis. When you walk down certain streets in Queens or Brooklyn, you could be in Kingston or Dakar.”

Mother of George goes a step further. The film observes devoted wife Adenike (Danai Gurira) in detailed close-ups and lit by ominous fluorescent lights, while her urban background melts away behind her in a dark impressionist blur. As she ventures out across Brooklyn, seeking fertility help from in-laws, friends, medicine men, and doctors, the landscape is a strange, sometimes otherworldly mix of the mythic and postmodern.

Reflecting both a sense of claustrophobia and “the dilemmas of displacement,” explains Dosunmu, the camera follows Adenike in this way in order to make “the audience feel just like her,” he says. “We want to see more, but we can’t, and that’s how she feels: She wants more clarity, but she doesn’t have the solution.”

Bradford Young, who also shot Dosunmu’s Restless City, another film about the African immigrant experience, puts it this way: “New York is an intense city. People are fighting not to be marginalized. And for those who come in from another country—or I came here from the South—our life is trying to be seen,” he says. “And that’s why we shot with such a shallow depth of field. Because this is what Mother of George is really about: See these people that you see every day that you never pay attention to? Forget all that stuff around them: We’re actually going to pluck that person out—the man who sells those nuts on Broadway—and make you see who they are and what they’re about.

“That’s a lot to take on with a lens,” Young continues. “To elevate someone’s concept of another human being by making that focus so resolved that you have to see them.”

Mother of George also employs an impressive color palette. Not only are fabrics, lights, and pieces of the set colored shades of blue—a blue wall, for instance, figures prominently in one pivotal scene—but in post-production, the filmmakers dialed up the indigo. Dosunmu says the colors are derived from African deities. Blue, he says, “is about Yemoja, the god of fertility.”

For Young, indigo has other resonances. “Indigo is such an African thing, because it’s in a lot of our textiles, and a lot of the early plantations in South Carolina were indigo plantations, so our relationship to that material is so intimate and so personal, with ties to Africa and America, and America back to Africa,” he says. “It’s really a pan-African color.”

Crafting such an intensely visual film wasn’t just a result of Dosunmu’s photography background—he’s shot fashion spreads for Fader Magazine, among others—but part of grander ambitions.

For one, he hopes to recreate the type of oral storytelling tradition from his homeland through cinematic means. “When I sit down to hear a story from my grandmother, it’s broken down into a song, a poem, a dance—and I wanted to find a way to have my narratives do that,” he says. Though Mother of George flows sensuously, like a dream, rather than feeling fragmented, there are scenes of dance, music, and beautifully poetic images interspersed throughout, which he hopes replicates the feel of a tale told by an African griot.

Dosunmu also wants to make films that are universal. “I try to work everything out visually at first, because I want my movies to be seen in any part of the world,” he says. “I don’t want to lose anything in translation.”




Inside the Country’s Insidious Covert Military Ops in Dirty Wars: Drone Dirt Cheap

Two weeks ago, in a major policy speech about America’s foreign entanglements, President Obama declared, “This war, like all wars, must end.” But veteran journalist Jeremy Scahill isn’t buying it.

In his new documentary and nonfiction book, both titled, Dirty Wars, Scahill chronicles the insidious side of America’s covert military ops, which continue to engage in targeted assassinations, killing civilians in places like Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia, and the vicious cycle of increased anti-American fury. “I just don’t see how this ends,” says Scahill. “I think our film can fill in the gaps for people that want to understand what happens in the thousands of raids that happen every year.”

Directed by fellow war reporter Richard Rowley, Dirty Wars (opening June 7) is gritty and gripping, playing out like a paranoid geopolitical thriller as it exposes the rise of the clandestine Joint Special Operations Command, which carried out the bin Laden killing, and the use of drone attacks across the Middle East and North Africa.

Early versions of the film presented Scahill as a kind of tour guide of atrocities committed by U.S. forces. But the two reporters realized that to connect with American audiences the film couldn’t look or feel like another nightly news report.

For help, they turned to fiction filmmaker David Riker (La Ciudad), who co-wrote Scahill’s narration and suggested the journalist’s own experiences be integral to the storytelling. Scahill initially rejected the idea (“I don’t write articles about myself in the first person”), but he eventually agreed, no longer wanting to be the kind of “numb robot”—as he puts it—that many war correspondents become so they can keep doing their job.

“The process of talking to David opened something in me that I have tried to tamp down,” says Scahill. “And it became clear to me that a big part of the story is how this kind of war impacts us as people—those who cover it, and us as a nation.” Scahill, in particular, “felt gutted” by the drone assault that accidentally killed the 16-year-old American-born son of alleged terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki. (“I got to know that family so well,” he recalls.)

Rowley and Scahill also aimed to make the documentary more accessible by employing a highly stylized aesthetic, complete with fast-paced editing and stark, noirish lighting.

Rowley, who won a cinematography award at Sundance for the film, says the doc’s look was inspired by a variety of sources, from “the hard contrasts of the combat zone,” but also ’70s conspiracy films (Three Days of the Condor, All the President’s Men) and recent action adventures (The Bourne Identity). “We wanted to make a film that speaks in a Hollywood vernacular to reach a mainstream audience,” says Rowley, “because it’s about what we feel is the most important issue of our time.”

But despite President Obama’s recent rhetoric about limiting America’s “perpetual wartime footing” and increasing “oversight” on drones, Scahill still remains skeptical, “because you have a popular Democratic president who won the Nobel Peace Prize and has sold this idea to liberals that this is a cleaner, smarter way of waging war,” he says. “I imagine Dick Cheney fly-fishing somewhere, chuckling about how great it’s been to have Obama clean this up for the Republican machine.

“A lot of people have coat-checked their conscience for the duration of the Obama administration,” Scahill continues, “and that’s going to come back and hit ’em.”


Catch a World’s Worth of Activist Thrills at the Human Rights Watch Film Fest

For news junkies craving more potent stories about the U.S. health-care system, Chinese dissidents, and the wars on women and gay rights, this year’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival (running June 14 through 28 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center) offers a copious dose of the urgently topical. But the films playing at the festival aren’t just ripped from the headlines. The strongest are cultivated with artistry and distinguished with an emotional lucidity beyond common reporting.

Opening this Friday with Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry—an engaging portrait of the famous Chinese artist—and closing two weeks later with Call Me Kuchu, which follows LGBT activists in Uganda, the festival is rife with individuals speaking truth to power. And while a festival of human rights movies might sound like a downer, the indefatigable spirit of these fighters lifts the showcase from pornomiseria to, at its best, an inspirational call to action.

Ai Weiwei is a case in point. In Alison Klayman’s film, which opens in theaters July 27, the Chinese art-star of the title emerges as a stirring symbol of antiauthoritarianism—and also as the kind of magnetic, irreverent prankster you’d want to dine with, not to mention follow on Twitter. (If you read Chinese, look for “aiww,” his active handle, and his dozens of daily tweets.) Klayman tracks Ai over the course of two years and documents the brazen performance-piece-style agit-art stunts that so often infuriate the authorities in his homeland. After being struck in the head by a cop, Ai and a team of camcorder-wielding assistants file a complaint in person at a police station and then go out for dinner, drawing fans and causing trouble. At the time, Ai tweeted, “There are no outdoor sports as graceful as throwing stones at a dictatorship.”

Besides Ai’s “hooligan side,” as one of his colleagues describes him, Klayman uncovers the serious underpinnings of his art and activism. At one point, the camera clandestinely captures an exchange between the artist and his mother, who confesses, “I’m worried that Mommy won’t see you again.” Ai dismisses her concerns, but Never Sorry hinges on a final twist that proves that even celebrated provocateurs aren’t immune from tyranny.

Neither are homosexuals in Uganda. Like Ai, David Kato comes across as a fearless, charismatic rebel in Katherine Fairfax Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worrall’s heartrending Call Me Kuchukuchu being Luganda slang for “queer.” Chronicling Kato’s campaign for LGBT rights, the film documents a scourge of institutionalized hate, with the media and the government likening homosexuals to political subversives, child abusers, and terrorists. Driven by a pervasive Christian agenda, the propaganda is Goebbels-like in its ubiquity and mendacity, but Kato continues to “fight for the liberation of my people,” as he says. Along with his fellow activists, he also lets off a little steam, in one of the movie’s best moments—watching a buoyant backyard drag queen contest—which under the circumstances, feels like Paris Is Burning by way of The Battle of Algiers.

The protagonists fighting for justice in Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s high-profile entry The Invisible War (see page 36) also endure discrimination and violence. The cruel irony is these are members of the U.S. military who are sexually assaulted while serving their country. This year’s winner of the Néstor Almendros Award for courage in filmmaking, The Invisible War catalogs a startling number of teary-eyed first-person testimonials from rape victims, along with damning statistics: 20 percent of all active-duty female soldiers are sexually assaulted, from the most prestigious ranks at a D.C. Army base to Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. But Dick’s occasional heavy-handedness points to the potential pitfalls of advocacy filmmaking. When he lets one of the young vets read her own suicide letter, an inherently powerful story tips over into the manipulative.

A subtler and more complex tale of abuse is the series highlight: Fernand Melgar’s profoundly affecting Special Flight, which follows a group of close-knit illegal immigrants awaiting deportation in a Swiss detention center. The movie presents a deeply humanistic portrait of the men, hailing from Kosovo to Kinshasa, as well as their kind Swiss caretakers. But the genteel surroundings and tender treatment belie the painful hypocrisies of their situation. The Swiss system might have a pretense of civility, but as the increasingly disgruntled detainees eventually discover, they’re screwed from the start. One inmate says it best: “We get overfed, but we’re deprived of our freedom.”

Thirteen-year-old Lydia, the protagonist of Lieven Corthouts’s beautifully observed Little Heaven, endures another kind of entrapment. Living with HIV and heart problems in an Ethiopian orphanage, the bright, ambitious girl is yet another kind of freedom fighter, overcoming prejudice, illness, and fears of trigonometry to tentatively live the life of a “normal” kid.

There are more overt activists at the festival addressing a wide range of social, political, and corporate ills. From the doctors, reporters, and policy wonks trying to remedy America’s medical system in Matthew Heineman and Susan Froemke’s elucidating must-see Escape Fire (which should serve as the health-care debate’s An Inconvenient Truth), to the young Indian woman trying to expose the evils of Monsanto in Micha X. Peled’s poignant Bitter Seeds, to the brave Mexican journalists who risk assassination to expose corrupt politicians and narco traffickers in Bernardo Ruiz’s Reportero, there’s a whole lot of pugnacious resistance going on at this year’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival. As, perhaps, there should be.


Love Is a Battlefield at the Human Rights Watch Film Fest

“Love is a crime,” says an Afghan female prisoner in the new documentary Love Crimes of Kabul.

Though travails of the heart may seem trivial compared with the panoply of atrocities on display at the annual Human Rights Watch Film Festival (June 16 through 30 at the Walter Reade Theater)—which this year includes mass killings in Guatemala and Colombia, sex trafficking in Eastern Europe, and the intractable madness of the Arab-Israeli conflict—they turn out to be just as revealing.

Love Crimes of Kabul, which also premieres on HBO July 11, documents three inmates in Afghanistan’s Badam Bagh prison who have been imprisoned for “moral crimes” such as adultery and premarital sex. Iranian-Jewish American filmmaker Tanaz Eshaghian says the film was originally inspired by two young lovers who were executed in 2009 for trying to elope in the Taliban-controlled area of Nimruz. But that region was too dangerous, so she decided to focus on the women’s prison instead.

“What I like to do is bring a little bit of understanding to the American public about what life is like over there by showing intense stories of people living at the margins,” says the Manhattan-based Eshaghian, whose last film, the 2008 Berlin prizewinner Be Like Others, focused on transsexuals in Iran. By showing a nation’s outliers, she believes that the culture’s social norms, however foreign to Western viewers, will become clear. As she explains, “the minute someone transgresses a line, it’s apparent what that line is.”

Rather than focus overtly on politics or military intervention, Eshaghian has a more humanitarian goal. “I hope when you watch both films you identify with the characters, and the next time you see something about Afghanistan [or Iran] you can feel they are human like you.”

She elaborates: “It’s important to understand who you’re invading.”

Indeed, Love Crimes’ characters are eminently relatable: a smitten 17-year-old, a headstrong adulterous divorcée who says her parents “plan to quietly drown me,” and a charismatic fiancée who uses the unjust court system to her own advantage. And unlike certain self-righteous human-rights docs, the movie paints a hazier picture of female subjugation. “You cannot simply say these are women who are oppressed or poor things,” says the filmmaker. “The laws for women are terrible and they should be given more rights, but they still find ways to get what they want.”

Still, the film shows how naïve it is for U.S. policymakers to believe—or at least say that they believe—that Afghanistan
is approaching a stable and equitable democracy. (When Eshaghian was making the film, a suicide bomber blew himself up outside her hotel.)

“It’s not possible to change a culture overnight,” she says. “For instance, if someone came to the U.S. and said, ‘From tomorrow, everyone has to wear a bikini every day,’ you’d say, ‘What?’ It’s that same idea: The Americans are here; now you don’t have to wear a burqa? That’s not going to happen. Women told me, ‘If I take off my burqa, it’s going to signal to the men that you can molest me.’ At this point, it’s part of who they are.”

For her next project, Eshaghian hopes to make a film about the elderly, possibly in her native Iran. While she has misgivings about returning to the country—“I’m not sure if it’s safe to go back now,” she says—a documentary on the subject would likely be permitted. “It’s clearly not political if you’re filming 80-year-olds,” she says—though given Eshaghian’s previous films, such personal subjects often are.

‘Love Crimes of Kabul’ screens June 20–22 as part of the 2011 Human Rights Watch Film Festival,


Athina Rachel Tsangari Studies the Species in Attenberg

Athina Rachel Tsangari approaches dramatic filmmaking like an anthropologist: “I don’t use psychology,” she says. “I prefer biology or zoology. These are my tools.”

The Greek-born filmmaker—whose superbly calibrated second film, Attenberg, focuses on a newly sexual young woman and her dying father—left her native country in the early 1990s to study performance art at New York University. “It was all about the semiotics of everyday gestures,” she says. “It taught me a lot about observing and deconstructing human behavior, movement, and speech.”

Indeed, Attenberg examines the male and female species as if they were “poor little creatures,” as she explains, “desperately trying to crawl from one place to another.” The film was partially inspired by David Attenborough’s BBC nature series The Trials of Life: A Natural History of Behaviour, and takes its title from a mispronunciation of the British filmmaker’s name.

But while Tsangari may have borrowed Attenborough’s “British phlegmatic tenderness,” as she calls it, Attenberg is worlds away from a nature documentary. With its modernist, industrial setting, absurdist wordplay, and dance-like interludes—influenced as much by Monty Python’s “Ministry of Silly Walks” as Fassbinder’s Katzelmacher—the movie is closer to the approach of Godard or Bresson (whom she also cites as influences).

And yet the film is very much Tsangari’s own singular construction, alternating between socially coded manners and liberating whimsy. “We were very strict in the delivery of speech and the orientation of bodies,” she says, “but there was also this desire to escape from the tyranny of words and propriety.” In one sequence, for example, father and daughter jump up and down on a bed, mimicking the movements and sounds of an assortment of animals, from a gorilla to an albatross.

Attenberg’s central relationship also goes beyond the director’s interest in human behavior and addresses broader questions of national identity. “In a way, [the daughter’s] connection with her dad represents my connection with what I perceive as Greece,” admits Tsangari, who “fled” the country when she was 19 and didn’t return until 12 years later. (She spent eight years living in Austin, Texas, and joined up with Richard Linklater; she appears briefly in Slacker as someone’s Greek cousin.) “I always felt like I didn’t belong.”

But unlike the perverse authoritarian patriarchy in Greece’s recent Oscar nominee Dogtooth, for which Tsangari served as an associate producer, her views about her native country aren’t quite so grim. While elaborating on her complicated connection to her homeland, she aptly describes her film as well: “It’s this sense of loving, but not being sure how to do something good with it—like this self-imploding, self-destructive pathos.”

‘Attenberg’ screens March 31 and April 2


The Spalding Gray Experience

‘I was using myself to play myself—I was playing with myself,” says Spalding Gray in his 1997 monologue “It’s a Slippery Slope.”

And he’s not the only one. Directors Jonathan Demme, Nick Broomfield and Steven Soderbergh have also played in the giant sandbox of Gray’s angst-ridden persona. And yet in their cinematic collaborations with the late storyteller—Demme’s Swimming to Cambodia (1986), Broomfield’s Monster in a Box (1992), Soderbergh’s Gray’s Anatomy (1996) and his latest, And Everything Is Going Fine (opening December 10 at the IFC Center, along with a Gray retro)—these auteurs all take a backseat to that singular, droll figure, perennially sitting at his big desk in a flannel shirt, talking and talking.

Famous for his autobiographical one-man shows, the dyslexic New England native began his career as an actor (even doing some porn), and then found his voice in the mid-1970s at the Performance Garage, “cutting and pasting memories of my life,” as he once described it. With their movies, the filmmakers do their best to preserve the direct connection with the audience that he achieved in his theatrical work.

“I was very conscious of not wanting to do anything that would insert myself between him and his audience, particularly on this one,” explains Soderbergh, referring to And Everything Is Going Fine, which compiles 90 hours of archival footage, monologues, and TV clips to provide a snapshot of Gray’s life and work in his own words several years after his 2004 suicide.

“There was an extra layer of responsibility, artistically, to generate something that felt like him,” continues Soderbergh. While working on the documentary for three years with editor Susan Littenberg, between the making of Che, The Informant!, and The Girlfriend Experience, Soderbergh set out to “create a new monologue,” he says. “I knew I didn’t want [talking heads] talking about the best talker in the world. It had to be a testament to his work.”

All that talk is what initially put Swimming to Cambodia director Demme off Gray in the 1970s—“not wanting to be alone in a small room with one person talking for an hour and a half.” But he eventually realized that this was the performer’s greatest strength. “He was a spectacularly attractive and appealing storyteller,” he says. In conceiving Cambodia, a filmed performance of Gray’s monologue about acting in Roland Joffé’s The Killing Fields, Demme says, “I knew that it would never be boring and it would never start to feel static, because it wasn’t boring live.”

Broomfield agrees. “That’s the wonderful thing about Spalding Gray’s work: It’s just him sitting at a table, and, obviously, with the films, it’s enhanced by sound and effects, but essentially, it’s still Spalding sitting at a table, and the audience uses their imagination to fill in a visual story.”

Despite the acclaim and new fans these films brought for Gray, he found the movie versions of his monologues “hard,” according to widow Kathie Russo, a Hollywood costume designer and a producer on And Everything Is Going Fine. “He was always game,” she says. “But he was more about the live experience of his work. He thought it got a little lost in the translation to film.”

For Soderbergh, translating the Spalding Gray experience in And Everything Is Going Fine was fraught with both practical and personal challenges. Not only did the filmmaker wrestle with how to make a documentary as vivid as one of Gray’s shows, but it was also personally “painful,” he says. “It was an opportunity to process this tragic event, and I did need to perform some act of contrition, because of how bad a friend I was during that period,” he continues, referring to the years Gray was severely depressed after a car accident in 2001 left him with partial brain damage. “I’ve had friends die, but there was something about this that had me by the throat.”

Gray might have understood. His monologues, of course, helped him deal with his own inner turmoil, from his mother’s death to his own mortality. (“It’s a control thing,” Gray has admitted.) Soderbergh hopes the new film will allow viewers to see how this process—“the idea of the struggle to organize one’s experience”—functioned for Gray. “Unfortunately, I think that’s one of the things that was affected by Spalding’s accident,” says Soderbergh. “He would be the first person to say that his work saved him in many ways, and in an awful circumstance, that very thing was taken away.”


The Kids Grow Up’s Doug Block Talks Personal Docs

“It’s not therapy,” says Doug Block about his intimate family movies 51 Birch Street and The Kids Grow Up, in which he probes, respectively, his parents’ 54-year marriage and his relationship with his daughter on the eve of her going to college. “In fact, it’s the opposite of therapy. In the same way Birch Street was my way of putting off grieving for my mother, Kids was my way of putting off the empty nest.”

After each film premiered, the 57-year-old filmmaker celebrated with a party. “Then,” he says, “I’d go back home and crash, because I’d have to face what I avoided.”

Block’s ability to take a step back from his most personal subject matter may be the secret to his films’ successes. As he says, “It’s about how I can get out of the way and make these stories move other people.” In 2007, he crafted a list of the “The Ten Rules of Personal Documentary”: Rule No. 1—“Don’t make it all about you (even though, of course, it’s all about you).”

The New York–based Block, whose latest, Kids, opens on Friday (see review below), never intended to be the guru of “personal documentaries”—a label that he jokingly derides as “what some people might call glorified home movies.” He planned to be “a big-time fiction filmmaker,” he says. “I never wanted to make documentaries growing up. They were boring.” It wasn’t until he saw Sherman’s March, Ross McElwee’s epic meditation on love in the era of nuclear weapons, that he realized documentaries “could be funny, director-driven, and as creative as fiction films.”

His first feature, 1991’s To Heck With Hollywood!, which follows three hapless indie-film aspirants, may have helped validate his decision to move into nonfiction. After co-producing Peter Friedman’s Silverlake Life: The View From Here, the devastating 1993 doc that follows a couple dying from AIDS, Block turned his lens further inward with 1998’s Home Page, a look at proto-bloggers and his own efforts to represent himself online (giving birth to the still-active nonfiction forum 

But it was with 2006’s critically acclaimed 51 Birch Street that Block found his form. As a testament to the movie’s universality, it drew a diverse group of fans, from Stephen Sondheim to Judd Apatow to Michel Gondry, who champions Block for his ability to “find the extraordinary in the patient observation of everyday life.”

Though the docs have been “tricky to make,” because of the weight and responsibility that comes with capturing your own family onscreen, Block sets up basic ground rules to protect his “subjects”: “I never shoot when they don’t want me to shoot,” he says, adding, “OK, I might protest a little, but then I put the camera down.”

In a key scene from The Kids Grow Up, for example, his daughter, Lucy, sits as if for a formal interview, but then protests: “I’m really pissed off that you’re doing this right now,” she says through tears. “Instead of experiencing me going away to college, you’re just trying to film it.” Block’s response acutely sums up his process: “I’m trying to do both.”

Making Kids did present Block with “the single hardest thing I’ve ever had to shoot professionally,” and it wasn’t his daughter. Midway through Lucy’s last year in high school, his wife, Marjorie Silver, suffered a severe depressive episode. He struggled with whether to video-tape her, but eventually did. “She’s committed to destigmatizing the disease,” says Block. “She gets over it, and then we move on.”

One of his close collaborators, Esther Robinson—who produced Home Page, and directed the Warhol Factory doc A Walk Into the Sea, which Block, in turn, produced—says what’s “important to understanding Doug’s work is that he’s surrounded by tough, truth-telling women,” she says. “These ladies”—his wife and daughter—“do not let him get away with anything.”

As a logical follow-up to Kids, Block is now starting a new project about his marriage to Silver on the eve of their 25th anniversary. As a wedding videographer on the side—he has shot some 120 nuptials—Block hopes to bring the same candid humor and sensitivity to another deceptively simple subject: “What makes it work for some couples,” he asks, “and why doesn’t it work for others?”


What It Takes, BAMcinemaFEST Edition

Among this year’s best American independent films—on view at Brooklyn’s second annual and already influential BAMcinema-FEST, June 9 through 20—Aaron Katz’s Cold Weather, Matt Porterfield’s Putty Hill, and Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture share little in outward appearance. But whether slacker-mystery, docu-art-cinema, or anti-rom-com, the films take up similar themes (wayward young people) and display a formal inventiveness (merging naturalistic acting with stylized aesthetics) that breathes new life into low-budget cinema.

In Cold Weather, Katz, 28, combines witty twentysomething aimlessness with long, contemplative takes of his Portland milieu. With Putty Hill, Porterfield, 32, juxtaposes documentary looseness with rigorous, exquisitely composed cinematography in the dilapidated neighborhoods of northeast Baltimore. And in Tiny Furniture, Dunham, who just turned 24, casts herself as a confused post-grad, who moves in with her mother and sister in their Tribeca apartment (where she lives in real-life)—a minimalist white loft and studio space captured in sharp angles by up-and-coming ace cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes. Mumblecore, these aren’t.

The three filmmakers—who all shot their movies on a shoestring budget, ranging from $20,000 (Putty Hill) to a few hundred thousand (Cold Weather)—have crossed paths on the festival circuit since their movies were screened at South by Southwest in March. (Sundance, in a gross oversight, passed on both Putty Hill and Cold Weather; Tiny Furniture wasn’t ready in time.) They’re also familiar with one another’s work—Porterfield has shown Katz’s 2007 feature Quiet City to students at Johns Hopkins, where he teaches film—and talking to the directors all at once, as I did on the phone last week, yields some revealing synchronicities.

All of your films employ mixed modes. Cold Weather and Tiny Furniture play around with genre conventions, and Putty Hill mixes documentary and fiction.

Katz: I love the idea of mixing things that are traditionally not from the same place. And from what I know of Lena’s work, there’s a heightened element of realism for comedic purposes, but, essentially, it’s dealing with real people, and I think that connects all of our films. We’re trying to find the real people and not deal in clichés.

Porterfield: Because I’m interested in realism, I am really self-conscious about it. Going into Putty Hill, I was very conscious of wanting to keep the audience on the edge of their seats and make them try to figure out what it was they were watching, whether it was social realism or documentary, and what is true and what is fiction.

Katz: One thing that I like about Putty Hill is that a lot of it is formal, but the people in it are allowed to be themselves. It’s great how casual everyone is. I’ve become a big fan of: “If you’re shooting in a place and you need a guy who works at the place, get the guy who works at the place.”

Dunham: For me, forgetting that I’m watching people act is such a thrilling sensation. That’s what I look for when watching movies. . . . I’m a total movie geek, but I can’t get into movies like Nicholas Ray’s. I’ll go with my friends and they’ll say, “Bigger Than Life—that was incredible.” And I was so distracted the entire time by watching James Mason act in that fashion.

Katz: I totally agree about Bigger Than Life. I do like some Nicholas Ray movies, but I was so off-put by that one.

Dunham: I was watching it with a boy who I wanted very much to think I was cool and have a crush on me, but the whole time I was like, ugh, yawn, bring a book, I can’t deal with this. . . .

Your films all deal with a lost young generation. As filmmakers at a time when the economy and the indie infrastructure seem to be crumbling, do you feel adrift, too? Do you feel like you can build sustainable careers?

Porterfield: I think about that a lot. Putty Hill was really liberating, but I’m still in debt. I would just like to figure out a way to continue working on films that have a modest economy so that they’re economically feasible and I can maintain the freedom that I want. I’d like to be in a position where I could pay my collaborators—and my rent.

Dunham: We’re also lucky that we know how to make movies this way. But I’m sure if you asked us what filmmakers’ careers we would like to emulate, those careers aren’t really possible anymore because of the changing landscape of distribution.

So how do you plan to continue making films?

Porterfield: I’m trying to figure out how to get money for the next one. I think I need to get better and more creative at grant writing.

Katz: My head is still reeling with Cold Weather. But I have one script that could be made for a small amount of money, and another one that’s a period action thriller comedy, with ocean liners and stuff. . . .

Dunham: That sounds awesome. I’m also writing a script with a Tiny Furniture–size budget, and some concepts that are bigger. I will say that in making a small movie, there’s something that feels both dangerous and safe about it. It’s exciting and renegade, but you don’t have to feel like a crazy 10-year-old driving a school bus.


After Miramax

Miramax—kaput, at least for now. ThinkFilm, long gone. Picturehouse, Warner Independent Pictures, Paramount Vantage all a distant memory. Apparition and Overture—who knows? As the major players in the distribution of independent and foreign films have dropped off the face of the film business, a number of new entities are entering the space this season. Every week, it seems, another never-before-seen logo pops up in movie ads: NeoClassics Films, CFI Releasing, and the aptly titled Cinema Purgatorio—to name a few. With more films in distribution purgatory than ever before, producers and filmmakers are exploring any and all options to get their movies into theaters.

Unfortunately for them, Hollywood ticket sales might be booming, but the market share for independents is crumbling. Fox Searchlight, once the King Midas of indies, hasn’t struck gold in over a year. Despite their blockbuster Twilight franchise, Summit Entertainment’s Oscar winner The Hurt Locker topped out at just over $16 million, the lowest-grossing Best Picture winner ever. DVD sales continue to drop; VOD and Internet-streaming buys haven’t caught up. One new company, Consolidated Pictures Group (which acquired the Jim Carrey gay dark comedy, I Love You, Phillip Morris, but failed to muster the money to release it), appears to have gone bust before getting out of the gate. Can the following new endeavors do any better in the upcoming months?

ATO Pictures

• Movies on deck: Mao’s Last Dancer (August 6)

• Origin story: Musician Dave Matthews co-founded this company in 2002 as a way to invest in films (Savage Grace, Choke). Just last month, ATO formally announced its move into distribution, with a round of veteran producers serving as executives, among them the backers of the much-loved indie The Squid and the Whale.

• Prognosis: While ATO stands optimistically for “Art Takes Over,” the film business doesn’t take kindly to art these days. In partnership with Samuel Goldwyn Films, the company’s first release, Bruce Beresford’s Mao’s Last Dancer, about a Chinese performer’s journey from poverty to international stardom, may have succeeded in Australia, but such ethnic inspirational dramas are far from a sure bet here. ATO’s best asset is leveraging its resources in music and marketing. If they can re-create the promotional muscle of the Dave Matthews Band for movies, ATO has a shot.

Hannover House

• Movies on deck: Racing Dreams (June 11), Twelve (July 2), The Wild Hunt (July 16), happythankyoumoreplease (August 27)

• Origin story: Home entertainment company Hannover House had previously focused on book publishing (Blood, Money & Power: How L.B.J. Killed J.F.K.) and DVDs (Hounddog). Now it is trying to raise the profile of its library through theatrical releases.

• Prognosis: One of the most aggressive new players, Hannover wisely hired former Lionsgate veteran Tom Ortenberg to handle its releases and beat out several rivals at Sundance to acquire Joel Schumacher’s Twelve and the twentysomething comedy happythankyoumoreplease, and plans to promote them bullishly—the latter could go up on 1,000 screens, according to CEO Eric Parkinson. But such ambitious plans are risky in these belt-tightening times.

Newmarket Films

• Movies on deck: Hesher (fall)

• Origin story: Newmarket’s not exactly new but, rather, born-again. Founded in 1994 by two L.A.-based British financiers, the company found its distribution groove in 2000 with its much-ballyhooed release of its own production Memento. In the first half of the decade, the company’s distribution arm had a string of successes with Donnie Darko, Monster, and The Passion of the Christ. After a period of near-dormancy, Newmarket is back in the game.

• Prognosis: The new Newmarket’s first release, the Charles Darwin drama Creation, didn’t evolve much in the marketplace (box office: $350,000). While the company made an aggressive buy at Sundance for Hesher, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as an anarchic punk, mixed reviews may quash sales this fall. And just last weekend, the company opened Agora, a $70 million Spanish epic about a fourth-century mathematician (Rachel Weisz), conservatively—and smartly—on just two screens. None of these are game changers, but in its favor, Newmarket recently made a pact with indie heavyweight Lionsgate to handle home entertainment distribution for all of its titles. Still, though Newmarket has strong backing and strategic alliances, their choice of films lacks consistency.

Phase 4 Films

• Movies on deck: Finding Bliss (June 4), Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel (July 30), The Freebie (September 17)

• Origin story: Originally a home entertainment division of Peace Arch Entertainment (releasers of Jean-Claude Van Damme cult item JCVD), Phase 4 has recently ventured into theatrical releasing in North America, having had some success with Valentino: The Last Emperor in Canada.

• Prognosis: With a background in DVDs, Phase 4 knows what works in the home entertainment market: Both Finding Bliss, a comedy set in the porn industry, and the Hefner doc, are natural fits. But in going outside that safety zone, it’s a tougher sell. The company’s 2009 theatrical release of the Irish crime thriller Fifty Dead Men Walking, CEO Berry Meyerowitz admits, “was hugely disappointing,” although it fared better on DVD. Perhaps Phase 4 should stick to the home distribution market they know best.

Red Flag Releasing

• Movies on deck: 8: The Mormon Proposition (June 18)
• Origin story: Tossed-out executives from Warner Independent Pictures have joined forces to return to the distribution business on a more humble scale, working on extended theatrical campaigns for individual films one movie at a time.

• Prognosis: Working out of marketing guru Laura Kim’s renovated garage in L.A., Red Flag certainly can’t be accused of being spendthrift. A scaled-back infrastructure may be suited to the new economy, but modest Prints & Advertising budgets make it especially difficult to break through the clutter. However, Red Flag exec Paul Federbush believes their inaugural release, the hot-button documentary about California’s controversial gay-rights proposition, will generate enough publicity on its own. “The long-haul plan,” he says, “is to take it slow.” To survive in the current marketplace, that may be the best strategy of all.