Wednesday, July 18, 2018
  • Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2016
Documentarians In The Oscar Conversation Share Backstories On Their Films At AFI Fest
Documentarian Otto Bell, director of "The Eagle Huntress"
Insights from Bell, Gibney, Herzog, Kriegman & Steinberg, Johnson, Kopple, Oakes, Tweel and Williams
  • HOLLYWOOD, Calif.
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The inspiration for director Otto Bell’s first feature documentary came in the form of a photo essay from still lenser Asher Svidensky that appeared on the BBC website and included shots of Aisholpan, a 13-year-old nomadic Kazakh girl living in Mongolia and aspiring to be an eagle hunter. This storied tradition of falconry in that part of the world is largely the domain of men who train golden eagles to respond to their call and hunt foxes and hares in the frozen tundra. Bell saw the pictures of Aisholpan--whose father is an eagle hunter and whose grandfather was as well--and became immediately enamored and obsessed with her quest to buck convention and realize her ambition.

Bell sought out Svidensky, connecting with her via Facebook and Skype, leading him to Aisholpan and eventually yielding The Eagle Huntress which is considered a strong Oscar contender.

Bell shared this origin/backstory of The Eagle Huntress during the AFI Fest’s inaugural Doc Roundtable held earlier this week (11/13) at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. Fellow documentarian panelists, whose current projects are all in the Oscar conversation, were: Alex Gibney (who discussed his Zero Days); Werner Herzog (Into the Inferno), Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg (Weiner), Kristen Johnson (Cameraperson), Barbara Kopple (Miss Sharon Jones), Brian Oakes (Jim: The James Foley Story), Clay Tweel (Gleason) and Roger Ross Williams (Life, Animated). Moderator was Justin Chang, film critic with the Los Angeles Times.

Tweel was drawn to the story of Steve Gleason, a former NFL player who was diagnosed with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis). Tweel’s finished documentary chronicles the profound impact ALS has had on Gleason, his family, and how he and his wife Michel have struggled, persevered and somehow in the process have been able to help others stricken with ALS through the formation of a charitable foundation. Before Tweel came aboard the project, homegrown filming had already begun. Steve Gleason began making five-minute home videos for his son, Rivers--predating the lad’s birth back when Michel was pregnant. Gleason reasoned that he needed to do this while he could still talk, providing guidance for Rivers in later years. Steve Gleason talks about his various life experiences, offers fatherly advice, and tries to impart a sense of himself to--along with his deep love for--his son.

Adding to Gleason’s recordings were local filmmakers David Lee and Ty Minton-Small, a longtime friend from Gleason’s home town of Seattle, who became caregivers and filmmakers in residence quietly documenting life over the years in the Gleason household in New Orleans. They went on to enlist Tweel to write and direct what turned out to be the feature documentary Gleason. 

What drew Gleason into the project initially was a teaser trailer that the Gleasons, Lee and Minton-Small sent to him. It was an amazing piece of video which showed simultaneously how heart warming and heart wrenching this story could be. Just days after seeing the video, Tweel flew to meet the Gleasons and the making of the feature doc was underway.

Johnson said that she never had the idea to make a self-reflective film providing a glimpse of the moral dilemmas, emotional highs and lows experienced by a cinematographer both personally and professionally. What led to Cameraperson was her attempt to somehow salvage a documentary that was supposed to be about a school for women and girls in Afghanistan. The resulting interviews were deemed too dangerous to the subjects and the project didn’t come to fruition. Still, Johnson got to know two Afghan teenagers and she began shooting footage of them for a film that carried the working title The Blind Eye. A cut of the The Blind Eye was brought to Sundance’s editing lab in 2015; there the project was expanded to include footage from more than 30 films shot by Johnson, touching upon the themes of human rights, surveillance and the right to be—or not to be—filmed. Initially this was fashioned into what the production team called “the trauma cut,” featuring violent, horrific imagery from the impoverished and war torn locales where Johnson had shot. While this accurately reflected the situations encountered, Johnson felt the film didn’t reflect her overall experience as a cameraperson, especially on a personal level.

She then approached editor Nels Bangerter whose work includes Let the Fire Burn (2013), a documentary consisting exclusively of found footage, to help her complete her film. They brainstormed, resulting in the inclusion of family footage as well as other documentaries she has shot such as Fahrenheit 9/11, providing a more fully realized portrayal of Johnson and her life’s work. Also contributing significantly was co-editor Amanda Laws.

As a cameraperson, incidentally, Johnson has shot documentary fare for panelists Kopple and Williams.

Jim: The James Foley StoryZero Days
First-time filmmaker Brian Oakes’ motivation for Jim: The James Foley Story was to honor his friend since childhood. An American journalist, Foley was publicly executed by ISIS. Though it was a traumatic and horrific story which introduced ISIS to much of the world, Oakes felt he had “a responsibility to tell the story and reclaim that image or who he [Foley] was.”

As for the genesis of his Zero Days, Gibney became interested in cyberwarfare in 2012, noting that it was “a subject I didn’t know anything about.” That only served to further fuel his curiosity, which centered on Stuxnet, a computer virus that disrupted an Iranian uranium-enrichment facility beginning in 2010 and set back Iran’s nuclear program. Zero Days delves into Stuxnet which Gibney regards as the “start of a huge shift of how we live our lives,” akin to August 1945 when atomic bombs were dropped on Japan. Cyber terrorism is the modern-day warfare counterpart to the atomic bomb, he observed.

Miss Sharon JonesInto the Inferno
Kopple was drawn to the story of Sharon Jones both as a world-class music talent and her personal struggle battling pancreatic cancer. Kopple described vocalist Jones as being “one of the most talented, courageous people I have ever met.” Kopple said that Jones has had a profoundly positive impact on her life.

Herzog’s Into the Inferno takes us to volcanoes in various parts of the world. The lauded filmmaker said he was fascinated by the subject matter and its impact on people, including a farmer who refused to be evacuated from his land.

Life, Animated; and Weiner
Williams was drawn to the story of Owen Suskind whose autism left him largely uncommunicative--until Disney animated movies reconnected him with a language and his loved ones. The youngster’s parents, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind and Cornelia Suskind, are friends of documentarian Williams who in Life, Animated chronicles Owen’s remarkable growth. The film was inspired by Ron Suskind’s book, “Life Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes and Autism.”

Directors Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg gained unrestricted access to Anthony Weiner and followed the former congressman as he ran for New York City mayor in 2013, two years after he quit Congress when it was revealed he was sending sexually explicit messages to women via social media. Kriegman was chief of staff for Weiner in Congress, well before the scandal. Kriegman’s connection to Weiner helped him and Steinberg to gain the politician’s trust for a documentary simply titled Weiner. Kriegman and Steinberg said they were attracted to doing a documentary that could shed light on how politics have become driven by entertainment and spectacle. Steinberg said the prime theme that emerged was what today’s political conversation has become, reduced often to anything but the issues.

Golden Age
Herzog said he was encouraged by the AFI Fest session, noting that his fellow panelists show an affinity and expertise for exploring the human condition. He added that new tools and new forms of distribution are also helping worthwhile work to get made and to gain exposure. 

Herzog said that rather than being the proverbial fly on the wall, he sees that the panelists are more like hornets, seeking and stirring up stories. The fly on the wall approach can be self-defeating, he observed, citing the scenario of installing a camera in a bank and waiting around for 15 years to see a robbery. And even when the robbery occurs, it turns out not to be that exciting or eventful. Both Herzog and Kopple said we are in a golden age of documentary making.

Documentarian sensibilities are also becoming increasingly valued in the advertising industry sector. Several of the filmmakers on the panel have ties to the commercialmaking/branded content marketplace. Kopple is handled in the ad arena by Nonfiction Unlimited, Gibney by Chelsea Pictures, Herzog by Saville Productions, and Tweel by Community Films.


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